On Phenomena and Existences, the third AltrOck release by Rational Diet, is similar to the Belarus septet's preceding albums in its stylistic parallels to the dark chamber rock of Univers Zero. But where the dark aspects of UZ were thematically tied to Lovecraftian phantasmagorical horror, Rational Diet are preoccupied with something more Kafkaesque, as evidenced here by song titles like "Somebody in the Spacious Tail-Coat," "Bet on a Marked Card," and "Private Secrets of Machine." Also note that On Phenomena's cover art displays surreal imagery of headless men tumbling across a network of tubes and pipes, and that the lyrics sung by Olga Podgaiskaja in her sharp soprano are in at least one instance written by Alexander Vvedensky, a Russian poet arrested for allegedly counterrevolutionary activity in 1941 and who died while en route to exile. Such themes might reasonably be expected from a band based in Belarus, with its history of occupation and authoritarianism. But with due sympathy to artists everywhere who struggle for expression under oppressive conditions, On Phenomena -- primarily instrumental with a small scattering of lyrics in Russian -- can be appreciated regardless of its overarching concept. The lineup on this 2010 disc is unchanged from 2008's At Work, with Vitaly Appow's reeds, Kirill Krystia's violin, Anna Ovchinnikova's cello, Maxim Velvetov's guitar, Olga Podgaiskaja's keyboards, Dmitry Maslovsky's bass, and Nikolay "Gumberg" Semitko's drums at their usual places in the mix.
It's notable, however, that the recording, mixing, and mastering by Andrew Bogdanow took place over nearly two years with group members recording separately, and that two principal composers for the band have now emerged: Krystia and Podgaiskaja. There are exceptions to every rule, but Krystia tends to write in a choppier, more angular, rockish style and Podgaiskaja somewhat favors chamber classical flow and darkly beautiful melodicism, a dichotomy that would seriously affect the future of this band. The overall result here is perhaps somewhat less "rock" than in 2008's At Work, with more influence from the chamber music of Prokofiev and the pulse not hammered relentlessly on the drums. There is unity of purpose in the musicians' performances across the disc, however, as Krystia and Ovchinnikova stretch dissonant string lines across piano chords pounded out by Podgaiskaja in herky-jerky tempos and later interject plucked accents as the pianist lightens her attack; Appow's bassoon introduces disingenuous levity before adopting more baleful tones; the rhythm section delivers explosive shards more than a steady thwacking. Krystia pulls out all the double stops on the aforementioned "Spacious Tail-Coat," one of Podgaiskaja's hard-driving numbers given some jazzy flavor by guest Viacheslav Plesko's double bass, and the minute-long "Unexpected Feiertag in Chemnitz" (also composed by Podgaiskaja) finds Velvetov trading his Roger Trigaux-isms for some lyricism akin to National Health's version of the Alan Gowen tune "Arriving Twice," suggesting a Canterbury-esque dream rather than a UZ nightmare. ~ Dave Lynch