Širom, "The Liquified Throne of Simplicity"
I feel like I got into this Slovenian "imaginary folk" trio a bit late, as 2019’s A Universe That Roasts Blossoms For A Horse was the first Širom album that I picked up. However, it also seems like each new album is the perfect time to discover Širom and those who join the party with this latest release are in for a real treat. Along with Belgium’s Merope and the scene centered around France’s Standard In-Fi and La Nòvia labels, Širom are one of the leading lights in a new wave of imaginative and adventurous international folk ensembles and this fourth album is their most expansive to date (“for the first time the trio…ignore the time constraints of a standard vinyl record to fashion longer, more fully developed entrancing and hypnotizing peregrinations”). Aside from making stellar use of their newly expanded song lengths, it feels like some delightful jazz influences have crept deeper into Širom’s DNA as well, as a couple of pieces feel like the various members trading wonderfully wild, visceral, and hallucinatory solos over strong, unconventional vamps (the album description also explicitly notes that Širom “echo the borderless, collective spirit of groups like Don Cherry's Organic Music Society and Art Ensemble of Chicago”). Obviously, that is enviable and excellent company to be associated with, but Širom’s influences transcend perceived boundaries of time and space so fluidly that trying to forensically determine the contents of their record collections is both hopeless and entirely beside the point. When they are at their best (which happens often here), Širom feel like a glimpse into an alternate timeline where the freewheeling adventurousness of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s never ended and everything just kept getting weirder, cooler, and more sophisticated forever (and record labels were delighted to foot the bill for anything that could potentially be the next The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter).
The album opens with one hell of a bombshell in the form of “Wilted Superstition Engaged in Copulation,” as the trio unleash an impressive run of killer solos over a pleasantly clattering, oddly timed percussion vamp. Given the exotic nature of the instrumentation and the multiple roles that each of the band members play, it can be quite a challenge to figure out who is doing what at any given moment, but Ana Kravanja’s alternately droning and gnarled viola themes are a definite and recurring highlight. The other highlights are a bit more challenging to wrap my mind around, as one stretch sounds like a buzzing, psychotropic duet between a strangled bagpipe and some Peruvian flutes, while another sounds like a rattling, delay-enhanced cacophony of violently jangled metal chimes. Naturally, there are some other inspired, hard-to-describe moments along the way as well, giving the piece the feel of a 20-minute performance in which a magician pulls increasingly weirder and more surprising things out of his hat. The band then shifts gears a bit for the more subdued “Grazes, Wrinkles, Drifts into Sleep,” as Kravanja unleashes a lovely melancholy viola melody over a quiet backdrop of intertwining balafon and banjo themes. There are plenty of compelling twists early on (sharp and/or ghostly harmonics and warbly, wordless vocals from Kravanja), but the big payoff comes when it shoots right past “psychotropic aviary” and intensifies into a buzzing and heaving crescendo of heavy acoustic drone.
Elsewhere, the trio ride a ritualistic-sounding “tribal” groove en route to a howling and visceral crescendo of tormented strings in “A Bluish Flickering” before surprising me again with a haunting and melodic banjo/viola coda. The last major piece on the album (“Prods the Fire with a Bone, Rolls over with a Snake”) veers into yet another intriguing bit of untrammeled stylistic terrain, as it sounds like a supernatural collision of birdsong-like vocals, Ravel-esque impressionist march, intricate banjo arpeggios, spacey squelches, and feral strings beautifully enlivened with harmonics and bow scrapes. Later, it eventually erupts into a furious maelstrom of tremolo-picked, violently strummed, and furiously bowed strings, but that too collapses to make way for a rolling groove augmented by cool percussion flourishes and circular viola arpeggios. Another impressively volcanic crescendo soon follows and when the dust settles, Širom ride off into the sunset with the rolling, warbling, and jangly outro of “I Unveil a Peppercorn to See It Vanish.” To my ears, the first three songs amount to a nearly unbroken hour of rustic and revelatory brilliance and I have absolutely no grievances with the other two pieces. Širom are an international treasure, as this album sounds like The Incredible String Band, Louise Landes Levi, and the entire Nonesuch Explorer series were mashed together in the best way possible (and with some killer psych touches thrown in for further icing on the cake).