The nineteenth century blossoming of Russian artistic expression found authors, painters, and composers celebrating the unique spirit of their homeland. While Western Europe was swept away by the grandeur and myth of Romanticism, Russian art of this period is in many ways a Romanticized Realism. If the Western artistic icon in the nineteenth century mold is the fiercely individualistic poet, the Russian icon is the peasant tilling the earth, linked to the spiritual through his connection to the motherland. There is a humbleness and a desire to return to the earth, to a collective state of “Russian-ness” that runs through these works. The Russian esteem for simplicity leads to a straightforwardness of expression that, in its highest forms, resonates in the hearts of all who experience it. The enduring popularity of the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is a testament to the universality that can be achieved through the Russian elevation of unvarnished human experience.
Another key element to this search for what has become known as the Russian Soul is an embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church. This manifestation of the Christian faith encourages community as well as personal mystical seeking, serving as an anchor for the people during the country’s all-too-frequent periods of upheaval. There is an inward gaze to Russian Orthodoxy that finds adherents looking to the past for stability and legacy rather than seeking to change with modernizing cultural trends.
This combination of humility, love of nature, introversion, and mysticism finds a poignant voice in Siberian metal band Isa’s third release, Эхо (trans: Echo). The music of Isa can perhaps best be categorized as post-black metal, but where many artists working in that genre use its emotionality to explore personal psychology, Isa’s discography conveys a personal connection to the infinite as manifested by cultural heritage, religion, and landscape. The heady mix of slow, meditative melodies and howled-but-distant vocals wraps the listener in a beauty that is at once exotic and accessible. The simplicity of compositions is belied by the strata of sounds that make up each track, elegantly layering folk instrumentation, ecclesiastical bell-ringing, and traditional rhythms alongside electric guitars, synth passages, and black metal vocals.
The songs on Эхо, like those on prior Isa releases, evoke the wilderness of Siberia. A vast area of land, Siberian Russia sees some of the greatest variations in seasonal climate on the planet. The popular vision of an unforgiving, ice-encrusted plain tells only part of the story, with sometimes too-brief summers bringing sunshine and warmth to the region’s lakes and coniferous forests. Эхо is suited to contemplating the changing seasons, with the dynamic contrast of “Дерево [The Tree]” suggesting spring blooms unfolding into summer’s richness while the spiraling structure of the album’s title track evokes steadily falling, perhaps infinite, snow.
This focus on a spiritual—and overtly Christian—union with the earth goes beyond the notion of nature appreciation and links the land with the people who live on it. It is telling that the cover of Эхо features a nineteenth century painting of a humble wooden church in the snow—a decision that explicitly places the music’s aesthetics within the spiritual realm.
Carefully selected instrumentation further connects the album to a distinctly Russian worldview, putting Эхо in a category alongside folk-influenced black metal rather than with ecologically minded black metal. Band members Alexander Rastvorov and Artem Motin play a variety of traditional Russian instruments on the album, adding church bells to the gusli and bayan present on prior albums. The bells are of utmost significance to the Russian Orthodox Church, communicating key moments not just in Church ritual, but in the life of the community. Bells are rung to mark births, deaths, triumphs, and emergencies, and are also viewed as the aural equivalent of the Church’s icons: an audible reminder of faith for members of the congregation, intended to keep them on the path of righteousness. The bells on Эхо ring clearly through the atmospheric tracks, their crisp voices adding a distinct tone and rhythm across layers of instrumentation.
The strength of Isa’s music is not found in the realm of experimentation (though a strong argument can be made for the experimental nature of using black metal’s sonic toolkit to convey ideas of Christian spirituality) but in how it evokes Russian spirituality on an emotive, experiential level. In the same way that the flat features, ritualized compositions, and gilt backgrounds of orthodox icons unmoor these artworks from time, the decidedly non-pop structure of Isa’s songs invites contemplation of realms outside of the modern world.
An expression of the union between natural and spiritual beauty, Isa’s Эхо is the Russian Soul as expressed by a young generation. With its universal themes and meditative spirit, it builds an artistic bridge that conveys the beauty of the band’s native land to listeners across the globe. Beyond this, it is an album that achieves a mystical connection to a faith that has been practiced for over a thousand years, demonstrating the legacy and continued vibrancy of this form of Christianity.
01) Тайна при жизни
03) Мольба. Змееед
05) Седой старик. Меловая гора