Once again, I am stuck in a stupor, a place of shock and bewilderment at how the world runs. Just when I think I have a grasp on things, the almighty is ready with a spiritual cattle prod in hand. This time though, the benevolent lord didn’t give me a slight shock to remind me of my ignorance though. No, this time, he decided to just take the cattle prod and beat me senseless with it. You think I would have learned by now though, at least enough to know that a band relatively unknown to most of my circles, one that has a tiny internet footprint, can still pack enough awesomeness to truly floor me and challenge the very fabric of how I view music. It wouldn’t be the first time for this to occur in my days here at Lady Obscure. Just to name a few off the top of my head: Karnya, Maestrick, Beyond the Bridge, The Deadstation, each a band which I had known next to nothing about. Each who owned me during the review process, to where I didn’t listen to anything else. And each who in the months following saw regular time in my casual listening rotation. I can add a new name to the list now, Persona Grata, who with their debut album Reaching Places High Above.
This talented group from Slovakia formed in 1999 out of the remnants of the band Dead Poets Society. The band consists of Martin Stavrosky on vocals and rhythm guitar, Martin Huba on lead guitar, Adam Kuruk on keyboards, and Jan Steno on drums. More than just a guest musician is Jana Vargova, who is a brilliant addition to the album on flute and some vocals. The final product of their labors, Reaching Places High Above, is an album which merges styles and genres, bends rules and breaks barriers, and does so with a gentle style which makes everything all the things that they do outside the box seem so natural.
The album consists of over 45 minutes of music, split into six songs. The opener, Ace, begins with some ambient sound effects from what seems to be an airport or transit station, then drops some bass heavy notes before kicking into the first of many memorable riffs. Right away Stavrosky’s vocals come in, and man is this guy smooth. He has the range, of that there is no doubt, but he keeps it in check in favor of what is an album long demonstration of control, never once does he outstretch himself or do the music wrong, he is settled right alongside it. Musically, after the brief vocal introductory period, they seem to scatter all over the place in a brilliantly organized fashion, something that seems to be a trademark of theirs. Much of this song is very reminiscent of Kansas, if they really let loose and let their proggy hair down. The ensuing song, Edge of Insanity, opens on a melodically aching note, and then pushes it further with the addition of Vargova’s beautiful work on the flute. Of course this brings up tones of Jethro Tull, but that might be the flute bringing that up. Then, if we weren’t in a happy enough place, Vargova adds her lovely voice to the mix and gets us all mellow and happy. Then the band, in a very subtle and underhanded way, gets dark and disturbing, and they bury into that side for a while. The song is about transition, and they use these two sides to express this. Amidst this balancing act between the two spiritual sides is a wealth of brilliant instrumental work, with the keys of Kuruk and Huba’s guitars leading the way.
But even that instrumental work does little to prepare us for the next three songs, which together form an all instrumental suite portraying a journey from Istanbul to Venice aboard the Orient Express. Istanbul has the air of a dark and mysterious alley way or barroom, where said journey is planned and embarked from. Eastern elements are exceptionally thick here, so much so that the rock and metal aspects of the album take a backseat to the atmospheric setting being created. The exotic instruments and hollow percussions take a slow and sensuous two minute roll before the next track, Orient Express, takes off from note one. The Eastern elements become more subtle and another altogether different vibe starts to creep in. The excitement and adventurous nature of the journey is so palpable throughout the piece, it would be insulting to try and put this disturbing work of genius to any medium other than music. As the train pulls into the third song of the suite, Venice, the Eastern tones are gone in favor of a harpsichord taking over with some rich baroque layers. The album closes with I Am You, a 14 minute piece that brings all the previous elements in, and puts them to a strenuous test of endurance and compatibility as the band mixes and matches wonderful instrumental and vocal work in a final song that truly is worthy of the tag “epic”.
Persona Grata, you did it. I sit here wondering how I wasn’t prepared for this, after so many previous incidents. I think it might be a masochistic aspect of me, I leave myself purposely unprepared so that some amazingly talented new band can come in and blow me away. And this time, they did it with a style that I and my many thesauruses can’t even find words to explain. But no matter how uniquely they come across, it is not of question that they do it with precision and talent. Persona Grata sheds conventional style and method, using their many talents to bring about a musical journey that was a joy to embark upon, and one that I see myself taking again many, many times.