1. Stone Salad (13:26)
2. Familiarization Results (7:45)
3. Harry Heller Theater (12:11)
4. Perfect Place (1:37)
5. Parallels (20:01)
6. Influence of Time (10:22)
7. Crashmind (9:57)
8. Desert Circle (15:51)
9. Babylon Dreams (9:38)
Igor Elizov – keyboards, grand piano
Al Khalmurzaev – keyboards, synths, 12-string guitar, flute
Vitaly Popeloff – acoustic steel & nylon guitars, voice
Ali Izmailov – drums, percussion
Sur’at Kasimov – fretless bass
While quite a few people might consider the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan little more than a backwater plagued by many of the same issues as most developing countries, very few would ever associate it with rock, let alone prog. However, the country, situated on the ancient Silk Road, is anything but irrelevant in terms of historical and cultural heritage, and has a surprisingly high literacy rate – higher than many Western countries. Though its contribution to progressive rock (like the majority of Asian countries with the exception of Japan and very few others) is certainly not large in terms of quantity, the few outfits hailing from Uzbekistan have attracted enough attention to put the country on the prog map, and none more effectively than Tashkent-based quintet From.uz.
Formed in 2004 by guitarist Vitaly Popeloff and bassist/producer Andrew Mara-Novik, From.uz proudly declare their origins in their own name, with the dot added on occasion of the release of their third album, Seventh Story, in order to make the meaning “from Uzbekistan” even clearer. The band underwent a line-up change prior to the release of Seventh Story, with only Vitaly Popeloff and Al Khalmurzaev left from the line-up that had recorded their first two albums, and three new musicians joining the ranks. From.uz’s new configuration is the one featured on the aptly-titled Quartus Artifactus, a double CD/DVD set recorded live in June 2009. As the album’s subtitle points out, Quartus Artifactus contains “the best of From.uz in a progressive chamber style”, yhet there is definitely more to it than the usual live album/compilation format.
The live setting seems to be the most natural for a band like From.uz, whose debut, Audio Diplomacy (2007), was a live recording – quite an unusual choice for an album of completely new material. Quartus Artifactus, on the other hand, contains mainly acoustic versions of material taken from the band’s three previous albums. Since practical issues make playing abroad rather difficult for them, the recourse to the DVD format is the band’s chosen way to bring their music out to their growing fanbase. Being signed to US-based label 10T Records has obviously helped them to gain a larger following than if they had kept within their borders, and their music possesses an undeniably exotic appeal. While many other outfits bring ethnic elements to their sound, From.uz are the real thing, bridging the East-West divide with a musical offer that brings together the great Russian classical tradition, centuries of Eastern folk music and the modernity of rock and jazz – as well as other, perhaps less obvious influences.
The members of From.uz are very accomplished musicians, but thankfully they never give the impression of wanting to hit the listener over the head with their technical skill. While their music is undeniably quite complex, and requiring quite a bit of attention, the acoustic dimension lends additional warmth and depth to it, smoothing the occasionally hard edges of its electric counterpart. Furthermore, the accompanying DVD, even in its almost stark simplicity, reveals a genuine sense of enjoyment on the part of the musicians. While the quality of the images may not be as pristine as in other productions, watching the band perform injects new life into the material. Arranged in a semicircle, and seated most of the time, the band members come across as concentrated but never detached from the audience, and the intimate setting of the small theatre reinforces the ‘chamber’ definition mentioned in the album’s subtitle. The extra features allow us a look behind the scenes, showing the crew’s tireless work and the band members’ unassuming yet dedicated attitude.
Running at abour 100 minutes, the 9 tracks featured on the set offer a well-rounded picture of the band’s output and general approach. As anyone already familiar with From.uz will know, their compositions tend to be rather long, with only the short guitar/vocal interlude “Perfect Place” and “Familiarization Results” clocking in at below 9 minutes. The music’s inherent complexity benefits from the semi-acoustic rendition immensely, retaining its head-spinning intricacy while acquiring more than a hint of endearing softness. Guitarist Vitaly Popeloff’s is a delight to watch (or even just to hear), his stunningly accomplished acoustic playing, together with Ali Izmailov’s spectacular drumming, the engine behind From.uz’s sound. While he is very much in evidence throughout the set, Popeloff’s showcase spot occurs in the first half of “Desert Circle”, where he runs the gamut of his instrument’s expressive possibilities, ranging from slow, meditative tones to jazzier, Latin-tinged licks. He is also a more than capable vocalist, as proved by his performance on the aforementioned “Perfect Place” and “Parallels”.
Opener “Stone Salad” (from Overlook) introduces the listener to the lush tapestry of From.uz’s music, with its jazz-rock foundation overlaid by many different influences, including the expected Eastern ones. The earlier material from the Audio Diplomacy album (“Familiarization Results”, “Harry Heller Theatre” and “Babylon Dreams”) possesses a more distinct classical flavour, though the latter number takes a sharper, jazzy route. The monumental “Parallels” (taken from Seventh Story, like “Perfect Place”, “Desert Circle” and “Influence of Time”,), at 20 minutes the longest item on the album, blends the symphonic, the atmospheric and the jazzy component of the band’s inspiration in a richly complex, yet deeply emotional creation; while “Crashmind” (also from Overlook) is a dynamic, fusiony number based on variations on a theme that runs through the whole composition. Igor Elizov and Al Khalmurzaev’s keyboards add rich, subtly shaded layers of sound, and Sur’at Kasimov’s fretless bass acts as a discreet but reliable driving force.
The splendid artwork, courtesy of the band’s official artist and US manager, Ken Westphal, offers an added bonus to both newcomers and fans of the band. Westphal’s style, here rendered in gorgeous shades of blue, green and grey, is subtly reminiscent of Roger Dean, though more streamlined – the dreamlike quality of the inner gatefold image of water and sky tempered by a life-like touch. All in all, Quartus Artifactus provides a stunningly-packaged introduction to one of the best instrumental progressive rock bands on the current scene, and one that will hopefully get an opportunity to perform in the US in the near future.