Any old geezers still on the planet who happen to be fans of the Rock in Opposition sound of '70s Henry Cow or Univers Zero should immediately snap up At Work, Belarussian septet Rational Diet's second disc on the Italian AltrOck label. Congruent with the cover art's depiction of a storm trooper sawing away on a cello -- not to mention song titles suggesting a Kafkaesque narrative (and in one instance referencing the Stalinist "Jewish homeland" of Birobidjan, where thousands of Belarussian Jews were "encouraged" to settle) -- the music within is often severe in nature, with martial beats and the chamberesque instruments (bassoon, saxophone, violin, cello, keyboards, guitar, bass, drums) sometimes displaying lightness and delicacy while at other times pounding away in a manner that could serve as a soundtrack for a military invasion. The opening and closing theme of "Dear Kontrabandist" suggests jackboots on the march, bookending a comparatively gentle but still somewhat strident interlude dominated by Vitaly Appow's bassoon, more akin to neo-classical Michel Berckmans of early UZ than Henry Cow's Lindsay Cooper (the album is not without Cooper-styled wild bassoon improvisations elsewhere, however). Pop music listeners of the 21st century may be put off by new member pianist Olga Podgaiskaya's brief vocal interludes here and in the subsequent "Wet Moss" and "Ariel's Last Dream: Birobidjan" -- her intervallic leaps in the soprano range drawing upon classical operatic and art song traditions -- but one might argue that her vocal approach is perfectly suited to Rational Diet's style of dark chamber rock. (Marie Anne Polaris, a guest singer who made a brief appearance on Present's Le Poison Que Rend Fou, is a direct antecedent.) Yet even those who would run shrieking from a classical art song recital might warm to the album-closing "On Tuesdays," in which Podgaiskaya's singing is perfectly matched with the song's dreamlike and otherworldly qualities.
In contrast to the debut disc's split between 1999 and 2003 recording sessions, At Work was recorded over a briefer time span (four months in 2007), resulting in a more cohesive listen with a consistent ensemble sound. Despite an emphasis on composition rather than individual showboating, there are instances of what might be considered "out" jazz and avant-garde playing, as in the tumultuous full ensemble improvisation midway through the ten-plus-minute opus "Condemned" (including some Lindsay Cooper-ish bassoon as referenced earlier). And Vitaly Appow's saxophone squeals and squeaks in "Dear Kontrabandist" and "Horse Army" might bring fleeting comparisons to the likes of Braxton or Zorn, while the latter piece also features a genuinely crazed burst of razor-sharp guitar soloing from Maxim Velvetov. Although drums occasionally drop out of the mix, the music stays highly rhythmic (yet unpredictable), with the sudden appearance of a waltz (as in "Ariel's Last Dream") or even folkish elements. The chamber instrumentation lightens the proceedings, however, although the conclusion of "Condemned" does indeed hammer the listener into the floor. Mainly, however, the old RIO fan is apt to marvel that 2008 marked the appearances of this album as well as the first installment (Stockholm & Göteborg) of Henry Cow's 40th anniversary box set. It's been a long time indeed since 1968 when Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson perhaps unwittingly planted the first seeds of the subsequent RIO avant-prog "style" that has dated quite well and continues with this new and often compelling variation -- from Belarus, no less -- fully four decades later. ~ Dave Lynch