ophisticated as the patrons of this website may be, I’m willing to bet that most of you still tie most of your listening decisions to mood, weather, and activity. I mean, how many of you are really queuing up John Zorn on your workout mix? Pavement during a hailstorm? Slim Thug after a breakup? So just understand that Barbez isn’t really doing it for me on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with some mediocre NFL contests on mute and a blank Word document staring me in the face. A truly avant-garde New York sextet that can, at best, be described as haunting and dramatic and, at worst, haunting and overly-dramatic, Barbez tinkers with the notions of virtuoso musicianship and traditional composition. Insignificance, on Important Records, is their third album, and it further extends the band’s forays into Eastern European folk music and adventurous electronic/classical instrumentation. (And while I realize that the label of most bands has absolutely no bearing on their artistic decisions, does it seem a little odd to anyone else that Insignificance is on Important records? Just sayin’…)
Barbez forge their truly unique sound using a variety of noisemakers: Theremin and marimba dominate the mix, and both are played with an expertise not usually applied to such eclectic instruments. A palm pilot supplies much-needed electronic grit, upping the “what the fuck” factor, while frontwoman Ksenia Vidyaykina’s frothy, cabaret-style vocals lend the album a macabre, near-wordless creep. The overall effect strays far outside the context of rock music, landing closer to a film score or the indigenous music of a gothic, 15th century European city.
As good as it is to know that some actually experimental bands exist in New York, a casual observer could be forgiven for bringing up the, “But why?” argument. The question would serve as legit criticism, too, if the band’s integration of a bunch of seemingly hokey elements wasn’t so convincing. Vidyaykina’s banshee voice is the band’s 800-pound gorilla; odd as the compositions may be, everything revolves around her dramatic, emotional readings. The music is so operatic that it’s not difficult to imagine a track like the wind-damaged “Strange” as the soundtrack to a long-lost volume of Castlevania. The murky compositions that lie behind Vidyaykina’s voice are the real treat here. Unexpected flourishes—an organ on “Song of the Moldau,” a noisy outro tacked onto “Like Snowflakes, Some Sort of Red”—assure that things never get too formulaic.
The most impressive, and frustrating, part of Insignificance is its absolute refusal to give in to rock’n’roll habits. Too many bands claiming experimental status eventually break out at least a few of rock’s conventions—a power chord here, a singable chorus there. That Barbez never give in is a testament to their unique art, but it makes for an agitating listen. It’s the reason why, no matter how much you love this record, you’ll never pull it out on a Sunday afternoon. Buying into Barbez’s singular angst is like filling a square niche with an oversized square peg: They fit a certain mood so well that it’s unlikely you’ll ever need them for anything but. Barbez prove to be more than a group of high-minded experimenters—there’s plenty of music to bite into here—but their tireless style isn’t versatile enough to inspire repeat spins.