'Originally released on LP by Stateart in 2002, and now re-released by Eastern Front in an impressive silver and gold embossed digipack edition, this is the first album by Israeli dark folk act Agnivolok to have seen the light of day after their first recording (1998's Belena) was mysteriously lost. Formed by the creative duo of Vera Shapiro and Vadim Gusis (also of Chaos As Shelter fame), Agnivolok play a powerful mix of experimental ambient improvisations and mystical Russian folklore inspired neofolk. With Vera contributing her eerie Russian vocals and guitar, and Vadim bringing unusual instrumentation such as stone cello, Ice flute, and two-handed saw, on this release they are also joined by two additional musicians Igor Krutogolov on bass & bowed bass (from Kruzenshtern & Parohod, Crossfishes, and Karat Band Toy Orchestra) as well as Shurik Waits (on flute) who add their own talents to the eclecticism. A multi-talented artist, Vera also contributed some of her painted artwork to the release of Darkwood's 'Lapis' album at the request of Henric Vogel, leading to a short collaborative stay in Germany. After her return to Israel, Agnivolok have contributed to various compilations (such as 'Secret Lords' and 'Looking for Europe'), as well as pursuing further activities such as performing in the live arena, and are now composing their third album as a follow up to 'Sculptor'.
Ushered in by 'Heart of stone', the first taste of the Agnivolok sound comes in the form of looping crackling noise and dramatic plaintive piano, both evocative and ominous in its minimalistic simplicity, and it is a promising introductory piece indeed, finishing with a final fourish of solo piano that calls forth imagery of being lost in broad barren wastelands.
'Close' then brings the first folk inspired elements with a medieval wooden flute melody, droning bowed strings and woodblock percussion. Additional resonant bells usher in the haunting female vocalisations, whose painful longing soars over the arrangements of folk noise and muted drumming, painting isolated landscapes of desolate icy steppes. Vera's voice really is quite exceptional and unique, and contains near-funereal keening tones that drip with emotion, quite entrancing combined with the more experimental improvisations in the background that grow wilder and more forlorn as the song moves towards its conclusion. As the backing falls away, the regular chiming of the bells is overlaid with desperate mourning cries, until only the monotony of the woodblock and vinyl crackles remain to suggest a sorrowful movement onwards.
The opening throbbing resonant hum of title track 'Sculptor' then melts into sounds of running water through cavernous depths, with further claustrophobic noise and regular percussive strikes evoking subterranean vistas of hidden extent. The slowly rising acoustic guitar with its flamenco inspired strumming patterns and creaking wooden sound effects slowly and surely provide drive behind Vera's lyrics of hopelessness, abandonment and loss, while the abyssic reverb applied to the ongoing samples seems to thicken and thicken to match the vocal intensity quite beautifully. All falls away to leave only the initial whale calls of its beginning once more, providing a stirring and fitting end, as of an endless tiring snow-blind march across Siberia while watching one's family fall by the roadside to die. 'Far Away' allows for no respite in the melancholy, as sliding bowed bass runs join together with obscure experimental shaken folk textures in a now familiar stygian brooding manner. With the singing joining the minor bass melody, the destitute lover calls across the sea to their loved one with no seeming hope of ever being reunited, and the resulting folk noise ambience continues to find new and intriguing ways of twisting musically in upon itself in foreboding manner, before culminating in the pining pealing of church bells marking the death of further hopes yet again.
The next piece is an additional bonus track not present on the original LP release of 'Sculptor', and is entitled 'Angels'. Effected fingerpicked guitar coils in serpentine manner over basic folk flute phrases and simplistic bass drum beats in what is probably the most traditionally styled track on the album. Short accordian motifs and a more restrained and pure in tone style of singing give the most relaxed impressions of any of the tracks on this release, and the only experimental touch is the brief quiet rumble as it finishes. This leaves us with an intriguing window into Agnivolok's creative process with regards to their folk roots and inspirations, as well as a brief pause before we reach the final song, the 23 minute long mystical epic entitled 'Penance'. This combines all of the elements the listener has grown familiar with from the rest of the album, and it is here where Agnivolok really pull out all the stops in a wild contorting experimentalism. Masters of musical space, the organic natural feel is never lost or jeopardised by excess or lack of taste, and the resulting symphony of creaks, bow scrapes, and shimmering bell and cymbal percussion have an animalistic (almost sinful) quality of controlled bestial instincts. Also, despite the random manner of composition, monotony cannot rear it's ugly head as Agnivolok seem to have the whole organic world as their musical playroom, and the resulting aural journey is inspiring, magical, and very unique - no mean feat in these days of plagiarism and unimaginative mainstream music. Gently rising and falling in a seasonal fashion, we are left in the depths of Agnivolok's winter as the last hypnotising strains fade from perception into the sorrows of the past.
Only having heard brief compilation contributions from this act before, I must say that 'Sculptor' has left me near speechless with its determined unity of vision, unique originality, and self-assured awareness of purpose - all so very rare to be found in an any act, especially in their first creative outings. Like a spiritual odyssey through the snowblown steppes of Eurasia, multiple cultures seem to be referenced in both feel and instrumentation, yet the resulting soundscapes appear to be so very much Agnivolok's own. I would also urge readers to view some of Vera Shapiro's artwork as displayed on the band link given above, as this adds further depth, focus, and understanding of her direction and motivations (and thus additional respect for one supremely talented artist of multiple gifts). Highly recommended both to those intrigued by the prospect of some of the most organic nature-based dark ambient yet to be heard, and also to fans of a truly unique neofolk experience. With a new work imminent upon the horizon, the future can only bring even bigger and better things for this wonderful group. Faultless.'