The liner notes to Not That City, Five-Storey Ensemble's debut album released by AltrOck in February 2013, describe a few things the 11-piece Belorussian group seems to find irritating: "excessive complexity," "meaningless improvisation," "banality," "clever fun," and "deep opuses." Instead of all that rubbish, they "focus on the music per se." They don't come right out and say it, but some might sense an implied criticism of an estranged sister. Five-Storey Ensemble is one of two groups that emerged from the breakup of avant-prog outfit Rational Diet, and the other group, the Archestra, carries forward RD's knottier, more complicated side. The Archestra's debut disc, Arches (released soon after Not That City on a different label, Soleil Mutant) arguably encapsulates many musical qualities that the Not That City liner notes dismiss. So, in contrast to all that excessive, banal, clever (and fun!) stuff, what does it sound like when former Rational Diet members decide to "focus on the music per se"? Well, Not That City often possesses the texture of a minimalist or post-minimalist chamber orchestra, along with the medieval flavor of Univers Zero in Natalja Malashkova's oboe, Vitaly Appow's bassoon, and Alexander But'ko's accordion, but given an upbeat, folkish quality (veering away from UZ and toward Von Zamla) on a track like "To Ringfly," written by keyboardist and principal composer Olga Podgaiskaja for the theater production Bondman's Wings. The contrapuntal arrangements and somewhat dark atmospheres -- with a strong rhythmic pulse but sparing use of drums and percussion -- might have some listeners thinking of early-'80s Art Zoyd or a band of more recent vintage, Aranis.
While not jaggedly unpredictable, Five-Storey Ensemble's music does shift abruptly at times; opening track "The Harbinger" begins with But'ko's warm accordion in a simple repeating figure joined canonically by other instruments at a slow, deliberate pace, but suddenly Podgaiskaja's off-meter piano chords drive an uptempo section highlighted by Malashkova's melodic, even sprightly oboe. The piece transitions into lengthy phased notes from strings and reeds beneath a static two-chord piano motif, and increasing tension is introduced by a bassline that the other instruments ultimately join, pounding away in a powerful assault. Resolution arrives with calm and an atmosphere of reverence, however, as tenor Sergey Dolgushev sings over a dirge with a liturgical quality, even suggesting Gregorian chant. In "The Incommunication" (with lyrics by Alexander Vvedensky) and "Yesterday Dormant," the pairing of Podgaiskaja's soprano and Dolgushev's tenor voices tip strongly toward opera, making Not That City one of the least rockish albums in AltrOck's catalog -- and that's saying a lot. One of three compositions penned by Appow, the aptly titled "Fear-Dream" (featuring three Archestra members as guests) floats darkly with an undercurrent of staccato jitters before building to a shattering climax. Slowly and somberly, Dolgushev's tenor holds the center amidst a cacophonous and dissonant swirl of instruments and styles on "Amid the Smoke and Different." There might even be some improvisation in the mix -- but apparently not the meaningless kind. ~ Dave Lynch