This concept album was inspired by the Chernobyl disaster and consists of nine largely instrumental tracks. It’s a soundtrack for an imaginary documentary or as Frank Zappa would say ‘a movie for your ears’. The theme behind the album is that, just as nature has managed to thrive even amidst the terrible fall-out from Chernobyl, we can hope to become free even through very difficult circumstances. Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices from Chernobyl was a primary source of inspiration and the album’s title ‘Here at Least We Shall Be Free’ is a quote from John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. The different tracks try to convey reactions to the disaster from various people who were affected by it.
The music consists of contrasting layers of synths backed on many tracks by drum machines and mixed at times with authentic Ukrainian and Russian voices from broadcasts as well as the voices of birds on two pieces. The final track ‘The Red Forest’ contains a poem by Oksana Pakhliovska spoken in English.
The album takes us chronologically from the calm before the storm of the disaster on the short opening title track, followed by ‘Xenon-135’ (the name of a radioactive isotope) on which swirling synths and echoey radio broadcasts convey the chaos created by the accident. The predominant drum sound resembles a clock ticking ominously. ‘Pripyat’, the longest track by far at almost ten minutes, is named after the town near the Chernobyl plant, still almost completely deserted.
This track is divided into two sections; the first with a very repetitive almost childlike synth motif mixed with lots of birdsong that contrasts sharply with the second, composed of radio static and lengthy authentic announcements about evacuating the town. ‘Liquidators’ has echoes of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ with its car-like synth cruising over the mix. ‘Babushkas’ is about the renowned old ladies who have returned to their abandoned villages and continue to grow their vegetables as always, as shown in the documentary film Babushkas of Chernobyl by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris. This track has a more formal structure and is less ambient with its neo-classical synth intro and slow and stately tempo.
‘Chernobyl Apples’ refers to mushrooms that grow in the affected area despite its toxicity and are purchased in Kiev, maybe for someone the buyer doesn’t like. The drum machine gets decidedly funky here, while there’s a sample of a Belarussian guy from a documentary talking about growing the funghi. ‘Valerei, Alexis and Boris’ is named after the three brave divers who went through the radioactive water beneath the reactor to open the tank’s valves and prevent an even worse disaster, the banks of dreamy keyboards here trying to convey an underwater feeling. The concluding track ‘The Red Forest’ is about how nature’s reclaimed the Chernobyl area despite the high levels of radiation. The second part harks back to the latter section of ‘Pripyat’ with its spooky bird noises indicating a potential return home. Among the opening lines of the Pakhliovska poem are ‘Forests near Pripyat flare. Dry forests burn in May…. Age old pine forests now suddenly defenceless’.
Creator Sten King’s to be credited for such an ambitious and well-researched project – this has clearly been a labour of love. It’s not an album that’s immediately accessible but after several listenings with ear-phones it really begins to kick in. A couple of tracks – ‘Pripyat’ and ‘Valerei, Alexis and Boris’ – would have benefited from being trimmed. Well, we’ve had the book, the stage-play and now we have a soundtrack – how about a movie to go with it?
Here at Least We Shall be Free is currently available on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and other outlets.