Last year we were blown away by Galya Bisengalieva‘s second EP, which was so diverse it left us with no idea where she would head next. Her debut full-length album is another revelation. The Kazakh / British artist has funneled her timbre to a pairing of modern composition and drone, and emerged with a concept album.
The Aralkum Desert is billed as “the world’s newest desert,” which makes it sound like a good thing, a tourist trap, a happy occasion. It’s not. The desert developed as the Aral Sea evaporated, and is now a graveyard for ships. This gradual shrinking has been called one of the “worst environmental disasters on the planet,” as irrigation disasters led to desiccated fisheries, soil-killing salt and climate destabilization.
Bisengalieva divides her slow symphony into three movements: “Pre-Disaster,” “Calamity” and “Future.” As expected, the gloom is in the middle, but the entire album is pensive. In the title track, one can imagine the knock of wooden hulls across a lush lake, once the fourth largest in the entire world. The fish are teeming, the fisherman are waiting, and all the augurs are fortuitous. A hint of humming yields a sense of contentment. Gentle waves buffer the deep edge of the track, stretching into the beginning of the next.
“Moynaq” refers to a former sea port eradicated by the receding sea. A shadow of its former self, the city now cradles a fraction of its former population. Pasha Mansurov’s contrabass flute injects a sense of foreboding. Calamity is coming.
Nothing that starts in a “top secret Russian bio-weapons facility” ever ends well. Now deserted, the ghost town of Kantubek receives a fitting score, bleak yet surprisingly beautiful, an elegy more for the island than the mission. The rumbling pulse of “Barsa-Kelmes” extends the terror. Another former island, the territory inspires images of irradiated creatures. Who or what roams these deserted lands? Few dare to investigate. As the darkest piece, “Barsa-Kelmes” is a reminder of Bisengalieva’s industrial side, first unveiled on EP Two.
But all is not lost. The Kokaral Dam has brought a slight revival, and as the last two tracks suggest, there is room for some muted optimism. “Zhalanash” (also the subject of a 2017 documentary) even has a pulse, yielding to a suggestion of birds. One can feel the sun rising, and hopes for the return of the waters. As one can see from the Getty Image, the sea is starting to seep back.
Bisengalieva’s meditation on aridity strikes the perfect tone. Concept albums are hard to pull off, especially debut concept albums. Aralkum leads listeners through a gamut of emotions, yet resists the urge to wrap it in a neat bow. The open-endedness reflects the nature of the artist herself. (Richard Allen)