As the Iron Curtain crumbled, the rock music that snuck through and reached Stateside could for the most part be divided into three categories: corporate-rock wanna-be's, dissonant dissidents and Pulnoc.
The latter is the Prague-based group whose brief U.S. tour was remarkable at least as much musically as it was culturally. Descended from the pioneering Plastic People of the Universe (a Captain Beefheart- and Velvet Underground-influenced group that was part of the dissident art community in the '70s and '80s anchored by playwright and now-President Vaclav Havel), Pulnoc has forged a distinctly massive and compelling sound. At San Francisco's Kennel Club last year, Plastic People fans and the uninitiated curious alike were floored by the combination of heavy metal, art-rock, operatic vocals and locomotive-worthy propulsion.
Unfortunately, little recorded output by Pulnoc exists. A single recorded live in New York fails to capture the band's power. But bootleg tapes from the San Francisco and New York shows confirm the impression that this is a world-class band that operates on its own musical terms.
A handful of recordings brought back from Prague by Times writer Denise Hamilton show that Pulnoc is far from the only music of interest in Czechoslovakia, though it would take some adjustment for Americans to fully appreciate it. As is typical of virtually all Eastern European rock, many of these treat such common Western influences as Genesis, the Police, Captain Beefheart and Abba as artistic equals, allowing them to share space sometimes in the same songs in what to Westerners might seem like blissful naivete.
**** Iva Bittova, "Dunaj." Haunting textures in which Bittova's casually powerful voice floats over circular patterns that could have been written by Robert Fripp. Not as powerful as Pulnoc, but with similar musical roots and nearly comparable dramatic effect.
*** 1/2 Prazsky Vyber, "Prazsky Vyber." A prime example of how the conservatory training of Most Czech musicians has to battle with the artistic rebelliousness spawned from living under an artistically repressive system. But somehow here the combination works well, with the obviously agitated sentiments not at all constrained by the precise musicianship.
*** Z Kopce, "Z Kopce." Classical-rock (sort of Gentle Giant) meets Pere Ubu. The most interesting tracks make fine use of chamber-like strings.
** 1/2 Bara Basikova, "Precedens."
*** Precedens, "Vez z Pisku."
*** 1/2 Stromboli, "Shutdown." Common to these three presentations is the versatile and powerful voice of Basikova. The first two, by essentially the same group, balance new wave postures with classical and art-rock inclinations.
But the Stromboli release, with Basikova singing English lyrics at times a la Sinead O'Connor and other times operatically a la Renaissance's Annie Haslam, is particularly worth a listen. Stromboli's music, composed by multi-instrumentalist Michal Pavlicek, ranges from Genesis-like structures (but with more edge) to an avant-cabaret style reminiscent of L.A.'s Fibonaccis.
Albums rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic).