Lesser-Known Gem: Czesław Niemen – Niemen vol. 2 & Niemen vol. 1 (Marionetki)

Artist: Czesław Niemen | Album:Niemen vol. 2 & Niemen vol. 1 | Genre: Avant-prog, Jazz-rock | Year: 1972

From: Stare Wasiliszki, Poland (now Staryya Vasilishki, Belarus) | Label: Polskie Nagrania

For fans of: Van der Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd c. 1969-1970, Area, King Crimson’s ‘70s stuff, Miles Davis

Listen

Halloween is on a Monday this year, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to get spooky with a Lesser Known Gem. I compiled a short list of about ten albums from which to choose. Some, like Jacula’s In Cauda Semper Stat Venenum, were written to be as occultic and creepy as possible. Others, like Message’s From Books and Dreams, were considered more for their album art. In the end, I decided on a pair of Czesław Niemen albums, Niemen vol. 2 and Niemen vol. 1.

Czesław Niemen (pronounced roughly Chess-woff Nyem-en) is an artist I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. Sort of like Guruh Gipsy were a big deal in Indonesia while remaining obscure elsewhere, Niemen is a major figure in the history of 20th Century Polish music. The National Bank of Poland has released three commemorative coins with his likeness, multiple streets around Poland bear his name, and his childhood home in modern-day Belarus has been converted into a museum.

After starting out playing straightforward rock and soul in the 1960s, his 1970 album Enigmatic saw him radically shift his style to the emergent genre of progressive rock. From 1971-1973, his backing band was the Silesian Blues Band, who eventually shortened their name to SBB and became another highly-influential prog act in their own right. (They are also a band I’ve considered for a future Deep Dive, though that’s far from imminent.)

In 1972 Niemen released a pair of self-titled albums. The fact that they’re titled Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, as well as the sonic continuity between them show that they were intended to be one double album. In 1994 this vision was finally realized with the release of Marionetki. Oddly, though, Vol. 2 comprises sides 1 and 2, and Vol. 1 is the second disc.

I don’t speak Polish. At best, my two years of Russian in college can allow me to make educated guesses on occasional individual words. Thus, I’m not sure if the lyrics of these twinned records fit the spooky Halloween theme. The tone of the music is often creepy and oppressive, though, and it’s always engaging.

“Marionetki” (“Puppets” or “Puppet Men” per the back of the physical copy I own) kicks things off with eerie organ and gongs, topped with some ritualistic-sounding vocals. The mood is immediately dark and dramatic. Elements of soul and gospel music are evident in Niemen’s singing. The minimal instrumental makes this an effective introduction that sets the stage for what’s to come.

Following this is the 14-minute “Piosenka dla zmarłej” (“A Song for the Deceased”). Icy, warbling, growling keys open the song on a disorienting note. Avant-garde jazz elements are obvious in these first moments as instrumental elements swell and ebb. Chaotic organ runs and guitar lines eventually converge into an ascending riff that leads into a mellower, soulful verse. Niemen’s voice is powerful, passionate, and characterful. As the verse ends, the song enters a brief jam. Guitar and bass battle it out over swirling organ, and brass embellishments are brought in for the next verse. The vocal and instrumental sections of this song are fairly distinct, but both are fantastic. They express the versatility both of Niemen as a songwriter and of SBB as musicians.

“Z pierwszych ważniejszych odkryć” (“Of the First Major Discoveries”) opens with an oddly-metered guitar line, followed by an ominous, wailing, doom-y passage. The verse is pared down and gentle, with hints of folk and jazz floating in the background. Tension builds as Niemen shouts his words and the guitar nervously wobbles. After a flashy, bluesy guitar solo, the song moves into a strange, drum-forward section punctuated with the occasional yelp or guitar lick. At closing, the song revisits an earlier calm and jazzy theme. The interlude “Ptaszek” (“Little Bird”) follows, and it’s a minutelong vocals-and-guitar piece that draws from Slavic folk traditions.

Closing out Vol. 2 is “Com uczynił…” (“What Have I Done…”). The opening guitar chords are jazzy; the tone is warm, though the notes themselves are full of anxiety. Niemen’s powerful, expressive voice is again the focus over this minimal backing. When organ and percussion eventually enter, it only adds weight to the track. Moving past the verse, the music takes an evil-sounding turn. Organ and guitar work in tandem as a squealing trumpet bleats a plaintive line. This movement is followed by an organ solo full of rapid runs and jazzy flourishes. Following this instrumental passage, the track ends on a quiet, mournful note.

The second half of MarionetkiNiemen Vol. 1–is more overtly jazzy and experimental than Vol. 2. The 17-minute “Requiem dla Van Gogha” (“Requiem for Van Gogh”) opens the disc. A sinister growl of a bowed bass and gently muttered vocals start this song on an ominous note. Much of this track is improvised and borders on free jazz. The focus here is on mood and atmosphere, rather than structure. A move like that is often risky, but the musicians’ chemistry is good enough to keep this track tense and engaging. Some of the wailing string instruments and cacophonous keyboard parts remind me of some of the more abstract contemporary post-rock acts. This song might be a bit longer than is necessary, but it remains surprisingly focused.

The brief “Sariusz” has more structure and momentum than the previous track. The song opens on a weirdly peppy, bouncing piano line, complemented by fuzzy guitar and Niemen’s oddball vocals. At only a little over three minutes long, it works as a great interlude between this disc’s longer pieces.

Vol. 1 ends with the 13-minute “Inicjały” (“Initials”). Much like the opening track, this song is largely improvised, though vocals play a more prominent role here. The song starts off with some noodling before eventually settling into a groove. The drumming does a great job of keeping things moving as bass and trumpet trade licks in the spotlight. The drummer eventually gets his turn in the spotlight with a fun little solo as well, which is just the right length.

Niemen vol. 1 and Niemen vol. 2 comprise the two halves of a moody, creepy double album. The music is expressive and draws heavily from avant-garde jazz. Parts of this duology can be a challenging listen (most of Vol. 1, especially if you’re averse to experimental jazz), but it’s definitely worth your time. And until an artist rearranges “The Monster Mash” as a 20-minute suite, this is one of the better examples of spooky prog I could have posted today.

Score: 91/100

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