Tuesday, May 2, 2006


Although their music fits the broad definition of "heavy metal," the members of Isis are not leather-clad, skull-wearing bad boys. Sunday night at the Black Cat, the Boston quintet opened its set with a number in which singer-guitarist Aaron Turner's voice entered quickly in a murmured, chantlike mode. It sounded like a call to prayer.

The lengthy piece ultimately encompassed painfully throaty vocals and head-banging three-guitar fanfares, but these were balanced by airy, lyrical passages. If the violent surges were essential punctuation, they didn't seem to be the crux of the band's style. Isis was most powerful at its most serene, during long passages in which the guitars lapped at each other -- the band wasn't kidding when it named its 2002 album "Oceanic" -- while drummer Aaron Harris embroidered the beat. A slamming one-song encore asserted that Isis has not gone soft, yet its hardness would be routine without the gentler moments that frame the group's harshest outbursts.

Dalek, which preceded Isis, has dropped one of its members and a lot of its sound since its last local appearance almost four years ago. Now reduced to a rapper (also called Dalek) and a laptop noisemaker (named Oktopus), the Newark duo performed a series of largely interchangeable numbers, in which howling electronics mostly obscured the lyrics. (When a word was audible, it was usually something like "assassin" or "revolution.'') Without the group's former DJ, the music remained muscular, but it lacked the diverse textures that once made it so compelling.

-- Mark Jenkins

Russian Chamber Art Society

Critics hate to admit it, but most have little long-term impact on music. Vladimir Stasov was an exception: In 1867, he coined the term "the Mighty Handful" to describe Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The five were determined to develop deeply nationalistic Russian music -- in opposition to those using influences from elsewhere, notably Tchaikovsky.

"The Mighty Handful" worked together for only a few years, but Stasov's term survives, still associated with the composers' music.

A Russian Chamber Art Society recital at the Lyceum in Alexandria on Sunday night focused on infrequently heard vocal works. Soprano Galina Sakhnovskaya, baritone Timothy Mix and pianists Mikhail Yanovitsky and Tamara Sanikidze offered brief songs by four of the Mighty Handful and two song cycles by Mussorgsky, the most original composer of the five.

The songs ranged from pleasant to heartfelt, many drawing on texts by major Russian authors: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lermontov. Sakhnovskaya's voice warmed up after starting with a rich lower register but thinness on top. By the time she sang three short, plaintive Cui songs, she was fully on track. Mix was outstanding from start to finish, combining resonance and wide dynamic range with sensitivity to each song's emotional content.

Sakhnovskaya handled Mussorgsky's cycle "The Nursery" beautifully, expressively capturing both childish and adult voices. Mix was by turns dark, dour and demonic in "Songs of Dances of Death." And death has dealt the Mighty Handful a bit of irony: All are buried in Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg -- as is Tchaikovsky.

-- Mark J. Estren

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