The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices ft. Lisa Gerrard – ‘BooCheeMish’ reviewed

Folkloric musical legends release first new album in 20 years in collaboration with vocalist Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance.

“The critical temptation when attempting to describe the Voix Bulgares’ sound is to lapse towards purpler prose and give it the sonic cathedral bit.  In fact, there’s nothing frilly or ornamental about their communal voice, which can display a touch of severity to fresh ears… There is a comfort with and beautiful use of dissonance at the centre of their sound, which.. hovers movingly on the very edge of discomfort.”

Despite the two parties coming from incredibly different backgrounds (it’s a long, long distance between Sofia and Melbourne), in many ways it’s a wonder this collaboration hasn’t happened sooner.  Back in the eighties, they were actually labelmates at the ineffable 4AD Records, Gerrard with her & Brendan Perry’s haunting outfit Dead Can Dance, & the Bulgarian Voices (then still known as the rather less allusive Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir) on the two Le Mystere De Voix Bulgares compilations the record label issued from their historic recordings.  Furthermore, Gerrard has attested to their significant influence upon her.  Dead Can Dance often seemed to have aeons coursing their veins, Gerrard’s vocalising at once arcane and innovative, and the Voix Bulgares’ chorale is a rich melange of various folk styles of their ancestry; their respective sounds meld beautifully, as if sharing a spirit.

Although coming to relative prominence at a time when world music was a shiny new thing in the marketplace, the Voix Bulgares have remained a rarifed pleasure in the years since (this release marking their first recordings for over two decades).Probably still best known for their Trio Bulgarka offshoot’s work with Kate Bush on her Sensual World and Red Shoes albums – and, wonderfully, the theme tune for everyone’s favourite Thracian amazon, Xena: Warrior Princess – their low profile has actually worked to their advantage in some ways, their music not subject to overkill adland appropriation or documentary background waft and thus retaining a goodly proportion of its essential enigma.  Gerrard, since Dead Can Dance were put on hold between 1998 and 2011, has forged a prolific and award-winning career in the soundtrack business, and it’s this sensibility she brings to the collaboration (along with co-composer, Jules Maxwell), a proud guest of the ensemble, a striking contribution but not an overwhelming one (only four songs of the album’s twelve), care taken to observe and honour traditional settings whilst plainly introducing contemporary musical figures.

The critical temptation when attempting to describe the Voix Bulgares’ sound is to lapse towards purpler prose and give it the sonic cathedral bit.  In fact, there’s nothing frilly or ornamental about their communal voice, which can display a touch of severity to fresh ears.  The layered a cappella style can be driftingly oceanic (Stanka, Zabelyalo Agne) or percussively forceful (Yove, Rano Ranila – the latter featuring the mouth music of Belgian human-beatbox SkilleR as if to slyly illustrate that ancient and modern aren’t so very different after all), but it’s never less than powerful.  There is a comfort with and beautiful use of dissonance at the centre of their sound, which when harnessed to the exceptional, muscular breath control required to produce such tones results in a music which hovers movingly on the very edge of discomfort.

What prevents this music from becoming foreboding in its power is also a result of technique.  Long, long ago (in etc etc), I was a chorister, and can remember the transporting effect when your larynx was mainlining your entire chest cavity; I can only imagine that to be one of the Voix Bulgares must be levitational.  Their interpretations of their homeland traditionals have all the complex manoeuvre of, say, Anglican canticles and responses, but with no sense of formality, instead a natural, instinctive tributary.  The lifeforce of performance is vividly present and transformative.

The reasons for the long gap between Voix Bulgares recordings are not merely artistic.  Political times apparently haven’t been to kind to them as an entity, and with such a large and movable cast of members, the body of the chorale is naturally subject to flux.  With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that executive producer Boyana Bounkova has chosen to experiment with popular (if not actually “pop”) backing at times.  Crucially eschewing non-acoustic instrumentation, the end result is pleasingly sympathetic, miles away from scented candles and dreamcatchers, and actually quite sparing.  The album was constructed over a period of several years, as and when possible, yet sounds quite of a whole and of itself, a testament to the native authority of the core vocal heritage.

BooCheeMish, then (the title, by the way, simply a phoenetic spelling of Buchimish, a Bulgar folk dance in 15/16 time, rather than an obtuse allusion – again, we’re back to resisting over-mystification here) is a very welcome and restorative musical experience, hopefully the start of a new and fruitful phase for the Voix Bulgares. And in a world like it always seems to be these days, hubbub and echo chamber, it can only be rewarding to take a short while to appreciate actual  – natural, devotional – resonance.


❉ The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices ft. Lisa Gerrard – ‘BooCheeMish’ was released internationally on May 25th, 2018, by Prophecy Productions on LP, CD, digital, and specially designed limited edition box set formats.

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