Is Poland becoming the next Sweden? Following the breakdown of oppressive communist rule in 1989, it has taken the Central European country nearly twenty years to rebuild its cultural ties to the West; during that time, the country’s popular and independent music has evolved tremendously as well. With the sudden availability of American and British records in stores, Polish musicians went through a period of enchantment with the formerly-hard-to-come-by and accelerated schooling-up in international pop/rock lore; a period that, next to consistently strong releases from a select few, gave birth to a whole lot of music that was derivative at best. In recent years, however, both the country’s mainstream and underground scenes have been coming into their own, and the rest of the world is finally taking notice. From the Quietus and Pigeons & Planes to Pitchfork and the Guardian, the English-language media have remarked on the wholly original and fresh sounds coming from the EU state right now, their eager, somewhat removed perspective on the latest international trends and subtle Slavic weirdness. And that interest is only growing, slowly starting to resemble the flirtation American critics and listeners alike have had with the beautifully uncanny pop of the Swedes. Below, check out ten releases that defined the best Polish music of 2014, and collectively serve as an apt introduction to the country’s rich and diverse musical tradition:
10. Wild Books: Wild Books
The influence of British indie and alternative rock has been a major shaping force in Poland over the last twenty years, with Myslovitz, one of the most popular bands of the late 90s/early zeros, essentially a distant cousin to Oasis. Recently, however, more and more Polish indie rockers have looked towards the United States for their inspiration. Wild Books, a Warsaw duo that sprang from the ashes of Teenagers, once a fixture of the city’s squat scene, are one of them. While Teenagers’ sound veered somewhere between American lo-fi twee and blatantly political anarcho-punk, in his new project drummer Karol Czerniakiewicz teams up with singer-songwriter Janusz Wiernicki to create a well-rounded but still incredibly US-centric sound (straightforward Velvet Underground tribute included). Their debut album, out on Instant Classic, showcases echos of a wide range of indie and punk bands (from the Pixies to Sonny and the Sunsets to Wavves) filtered through warm, lo-fidelity production and marked with Wiernicki’s distinctive country bard sensibility.
09. Innercity Ensemble: II
The group’s Bandcamp introduction reads that “Innercity Ensemble is a free-from improvisational musical collective combining 7 different personalities from different sonic backgrounds: jazz, post-industrial, noise-rock, electronic” and I can’t think of a description that would better depict the tradition of the Polish experimental scene. The spirit of boundary-free collaboration of uber-creative singletons has long been a staple of the Polish scene, but it’s interesting to see how the musical interests of those involved have changed over the years: from (mostly) jazz and funk to post-rock and drone. On their second LP, Innercity Ensemble bridge the gap between Tortoise’s future jazz and the ambient noise of contemporary underground cassette culture, throw in a bit of Krautrock and Brazilian carnival grooves, and all that under the auspices of the Polish electro-acoustic tradition. Plus, the guitars on the album are handled by Stara Rzeka’s Kuba Ziolek — the man who helped bring 21st century Polish indie back into the limelight with his 2013 album, Cien Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem — one of the best-received LPs from the country in decades.
08. Zamilska: UNTUNE
Like everywhere else, 2014 was a big year for techno in Poland. No star shone more brightly though than that of Natalia Zamilska, a producer from the post-industrial, often overlooked city of Katowice, who quickly became the standard-bearer of the genre’s current media buzz, and took that standard all the way to the twelfth spot of the Quietus’ year-end albums roundup. Many doting techno fans would argue that her debut LP was nowhere near the podium for the genre, being too generic-sounding and somewhat insecurely proper, but Zamilska has achieved something remarkable in her own right. In a country where quality music often relies on a subtle juxtaposition of the Western and the indigenous, Zamilska has produced a techno album that could have come out anywhere in the world and still make waves. No other techno release was equally– no pun intended– polished, making for the perfect crossover album: mechanically immaculate and immediately accessible.
07. Michal Biela: Michal Biela
It’s hard to believe that we had to wait until 2014 to hear solo material from Szczecin-bred Michal Biela. The man is an institution of sorts. First, he founded the post-rock act Kristen in 1997, a band that releases albums up to this day (including this year’s The Secret Map). Since 2005, he’s been the bassist for Scianka, arguably the most renowned alternative Polish band after 1989. And, in 2008, he joined that band’s leader to form a supergroup, Kings of Caramel. Biela’s solo debut is different than his usual work, though: it is a collection of gentle anti-folk miniatures, stripped-down ballads “orchestrated” mostly for Biela’s warm voice and an acoustic guitar. As you’d expect from someone who makes his living translating from Polish to English, his command of the latter is impressive, allowing him to get quite introspective and poetical in that language. It’s hard to think of another Polish album that has done this kind of music so much justice, ever. If Poland really is becoming the next Sweden, than Biela (at least in his solo incarnation) is its Jose Gonzales.
06. Wilga: Wilga
Only in Poland could an album that includes sentimental Fleet Foxes-like folk numbers, ’90s-sounding post-rock à la Bark Psychosis and a goddamn Seal cover be released in 2014. And the crazy thing is: it works. The seven songs of the LP are an idiosyncratic mix that lacks your usual pretension of a band wanting to fit in, anywhere. Like the bulk of Polish rock, the album deals with melancholy and nostalgia, and shows desperate attempts to break through the bleakness of this world with a romantic fervor, but unlike the bulk of Polish rock, it presents its moods subtly and with a dollop of optimism and irony. Not to mention well-balanced, captivating, and at times daring songwriting.
05. Torn Shore: Savage
It’s no coincidence that three of the ten albums discussed here come from the same imprint: the Kraków-based Instant Classic has taken the Polish label community by storm, signing off on releases of assorted styles yet consistent quality. Founded in 2011 by “two friends who share a love of music and vinyl”, the label broke through with the release of Stara Rzeka’s Cien Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem, the album that started it all. Besides records by Innercity Ensemble and Wild Books, their 2014 release that makes the biggest impression is a mini-album of raw but flawlessly recorded hardcore punk, somewhere in the middle of the road between the teen immediacy of Youth Crew records and early Fucked Up. While firmly rooted in an insular genre, Savage is such a great example of what that genre strives to be that, by extension, its confidence makes it an enjoyable listen regardless of your affinity towards mosh-pit-friendly music.
04. Skalpel: Transit
The two Wroclaw DJs and avid crate-diggers of Skalpel, Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudlo, struck gold around the turn of the century, when their signature concoction of hip-hop beats and samples of Polish jazz records attracted the attention of cult UK label Ninja Tune. What followed was a prestigious record deal and a healthy dose of international interest for the iconic series of 1960s and 1970s records that incited Skalpel’s music, aptly titled “Polish Jazz.” Transit, the duo’s first studio album in nine years, marks a slight departure from Skalpel’s former MO, drawing inspiration (and samples) from world music, psychedelic pop, and American jazz (among others). It is a lush and insanely elaborate record that paradoxically feels feather-light; a studious exercise in visceral, gut-driven experimentalism, as cerebral as body-movin’.
03. The Kurws: Wszystko co stale rozplywa sie w powietrzu
For a Polish speaker, it takes a casual glance at the band’s name (an anglicized play on the most popular Polish swear word) to tell that they are a naughty, improper bunch. While I can’t testify to what kind of people The Kurws truly are in person, their apparent nonconformist, provocative attitude extends to the recorded aspects of the band’s music, which sounds like John Zorn covering some of the Minutemen’s legendary output. These nine songs are brief instrumentals, but scream louder and with more impact than any vocalist would. While relying on abrasive drums/guitars/saxophone interplay, The Kurws take full advantage of that limited setup, getting sounds out of their instruments that you wouldn’t expect to be feasible. Their cut-up vignettes of noisy riffs and motives are full of bends and twists, changing measure and rhythm fluidly, to the point where only one question remains: is it accessible avant-garde, or groundbreaking punk?
02. We Will Fail: Verstörung 2.0
There are other techno and other experimental albums on this list, but the experimental techno debut album of sound artist Aleksandra Grünholz is simply too good not to make the cut. Verstörung means “disturbed state” in German, and the title establishes a bit of a framework for the album, or at least several guidepost for journalists. For one thing, the Germanic roots of the LP’s heavy, overwhelming amalgam of minimal techno and industrial-tinged, cyberpunk field recording are undeniable. You wouldn’t hear Verstörung on a regular night at Berlin’s Bergheim, however: the techno that Grunholz fashions is dance music in a confused, disrupted state, equivalent to a high that goes terribly wrong: the ambient drones in the album’s background cloud the view with impenetrable darkness, and the random samples of bangs and clicks will make you flinch with desperation. And yet there is a structure to this madness: We Will Fail’s pieces follow the principles of good songwriting more often than not, with every seemingly misplaced sound finding its place in the chaos eventually; oftentimes, this results in the birth of a strangely implausible groove. If there is an album on this list that has two, three, or four different sides to it, it’s this one.
01. The Phantom: LP1
As far as I’m concerned, the best Polish album of 2014 came from Warsaw-based producer and DJ Bartosz Kruczynski (also of the duo Ptaki, who act not unlike Skalpel, working with samples of old Polish disco records). Kruczynski’s road to LP1 took short of four years, but the establishing of his sound was a more winding and atypical affair, with each pit stop only making the end result stronger. Taking UK bass and funky as his backbone, Kruczynski fuses the English urban genres with his other musical expertise – ambient and 1980s film scores by the likes of Tangerine Dream. What he got at the end of the road, however, is the sort of piano-heavy, organic deep house Leon Vynehall championed this year on his spectacular Music For the Uninvited. LP1 is expansive but perfectly robust: a devilishly cohesive statement with a discernible current that keeps pushing its gilded, multifaceted sound-world forward.