Danny Michel — Khlebnikov | Review
When you being to dive into listening to a lot of music, you begin to search for things that sound different and look interesting. I honestly don’t know how I stumbled upon Danny Michel’s music. I think I feel into a hole of singer/songwriters and let me to his work. Of his albums listed to stream, I was taken by the one with a stark image of a ship and the clearly Russian name Khlebnikov. I immediately added it to my streaming playlist to check out the next day. iTunes labels the piece as traditional folk, which I suppose is the best genre to suit this work. I was not disappointed by the record in the least bit. Danny blends this songwriting and guitar with ambient sounds recorded from off the ship they were staying on, the titular boat, and an absolutely breathtaking addition of strings and horns that take this piece to the next level. Danny was invited to go on an arctic expedition with Canadian astronaut and singer/songwriter Chris Hadfield. The 18 day trip is one of the most northern recorded records, having been recorded at nearly 80 degrees north latitude. They would add the strings and horns afterwards. It feels very stark and icy. One of the things I enjoyed so much about Bjork’s Volta was the horns and I think they are used here to a much better extent. They give such a vast cold openness along side the field recordings and guitar. There is also an incorporation of Chris’s Russian which adds more depth to the project.
“Inlet” is an instrumental track that opens up the album. We begin with Danny’s field recording of waves crashing and the crunch of breaking ice. This blooms into the sound of strings and horns that take on a soft yet dark tone. It’s a great opener to the album to set the scene for what’s to come.
“Khlebhinkov” gives an eagle eye’s view of life on this ship. The opening track “Inlet” blends into the song seamlessly. Michel’s guitar playing takes on a Russian tonality that give a view into the culture on the icebreaker. These themes also echo through the gorgeous orchestration. Danny’s words paint the day to day activity on the ship beautifully, “Back to the Khlebnikov / For hot soup and vodka shots / Songs with cosmonauts / We’ll dance to Rachmaninoff / Aboard Khlebnikov”. Along side the culture on the ship, Michel describes the harsh and fascinating world of the arctic as they sail through the frozen ocean waters. I loved the way he arranged and wrote out the story here. You get a full image of the cold yet colorful life on the Khlebhinkov.
“24,000 Horses” is a nod to the power of the Khlebhinkov as it moves through the arctic breaking through sea ice along its way. Michel’s guitar playing takes on more a sea jaunty timbre accompanied by the sloshy horn arrangement. Danny’s words paint a sort of dangerous beauty to this frozen landscape. It’s dangerous is echoed in the line, “What I saw through that porthole / Is tattooed and burnt / On the shore where we landed / 3 graves by the sea / In the loneliest place”. It gives rise to idea that no one can visit these graves without tremendous work. Though the track can be treacherous, Michel is also able to capture the unique beauty of this untouched alien land very can see. The amount of constant work that must be maintained to keep everyone healthy and in working condition, “Seal skins drying / In the bright frozen sun / There’s mouths to be fed / The work’s never done / Through the Northwest Passage”
“Homeless” has a softer and slight melancholy vibe as Danny describes what saw on the open sea and how this affected him. The strings add a soft cool wash over Michel’s gentle guitar playing. He alludes the mummified bodies found at Qilakitsoq in Greenland in the 1970s, “The icy tombs at Qilakitsoq/ Mummified and overlooked / A sweet young baby in a reindeer skin / Tonight I feel a bit like him”. There is also a reverence to the culture and beauty in the arctic through the description of the narwal’s song and the beauty of the glaciers transcendent blues. It’s a very caring look at the land and life around him.
“Lifeboat” brings to mind the terror of a ship sinking and not knowing whether or not one of your crew members is has been rescued. Immediately, you are thrown into the madness, “I thought you were in theirs / They thought you were in mine / In the panic & shuffle / Were you left behind?”. Keeping in mind the often turbulent and frigid conditions that Danny would be traveling in gives this even more layers terror. Knowing the song was written in memory of his friend Paul MacLeod gives the song a whole different meaning. The imagery of hearing a voice call out for help in a storm, but being unable to help adds a more complex shade of tragedy to the song. The lines, “I heard your voice / sing “Whole Of The Moon” / In the darkest of nights / I still hear that tune”, is especially haunting. Be it a comrade at sea or a dear friend that you aren’t able to help, it hits you in the gut pretty hard. Danny’s instrumentation is less dark and more folk driven. The orchestration and Chris Hatfield’s sampled oil drum make the song feel much more like a sea shanty about a lost comrade.
“Qilakitsoq” is cold beautiful interlude on the record. The strings echo the beauty of the glaciers and icy tundra around them. The name of the song is taken from Qilakitsoq, Greenland where mummified bodies of several women and a small baby were found in the 1970s. On top of this orchestration, we get an added layer of Russian conversation echoing in the background, the sound of waves, the sample of the chorus of “Homeless”. All this ends with the sample of a woman singing in native her native tongue and the sound of whales and birds. It captures the shear beauty of the location and the culture of the region beautifully.
“Fall” (feat. Chris Hadfield) is sung entirely in Russian. An ode to the mostly Russian crew on the icebreaker. The orchestration on the track both cold but optimistic. It’s Russian undertone marry beautifully with the sung lyrics. The lyrics on Danny’s bandcamp site have a translation provide to them which I will be using. The song conjures the imagery of village in the middle of preparing for a harsh winter. Chris sings, “Ложился на поля туман (Southward stretch the caravans)/ Гусей крикливых караван (Of wild geese, in noisy clans)/ Тянулся к югу: приближалась (And, mist on meadows everywhere)/ Довольно скучная пора (A tedious season is here)”, which makes me think of returning to an arctic port in Russia to everyone working diligently to prepare for the harsh months ahead. The beginning and ending horns rise and fall like the waves at the sea. It’s one of my favorites.
“The Dishwasher’s Dream” is a mix of Russian and English. Of all the tracks on the album, this one feels the most Russian sonically. It’s also the most solemn sounding. I love the layering of voices in the Russian sung sections that feel like the whole crew is singing songs of their homeland to quell homesickness. The Russian lines are taken from “The Horse Song” by Igorevich Matvienko and Alexeivich Shaganov. These lines spin the tale of man riding through fields in endless night in hopes to one day see the splendid beauty of the rising sun again. Paired with the theme of an arctic voyage at sea places you in the mindset of this dishwasher wishing to out of the constant winter night out at sea and back at home to the rising sun. Danny’s words only echo this lonesome homesickness, “In spring thaw the orchard blooms to life / The winding river leads home to my wife / With flowers in her hair / She sleeps without a care / In Mother Russia’s golden morning light / But alas it’s just a dream / I wake up here at sea / On Khlebnikov breaking through the night”.
“Down Down Down” has a dark sound that gives a frigid loneliness to the words. The words remind us of their isolation and insular nature they must take as they move through the harsh environment. You also get another view of the culture of the ship in the lines, “Down Down Down we go / Out of minds and in from the snow / Vladimir turns 58 today / We eat sardines & celebrate”. There are nods to sea fairing superstitions like whistling on the ship is an omen for bad luck. Danny’s chorus gives light to the changing in the arctic to due climate change, “Down Down Down / That poor old world above / Running so low on love / Down Down Down / Sailing through it’s melting tears / The glacier disappears”.
“Outlet” ends off the album in the same way that we began. We get the sounds of the crashing of waves and bark of seals. Along with these sampled sounds is the strings and piano that brighten like the rising of the arctic sun. Its end reminds us more on the beauty and sparseness of the region.
I loved the short but very immersive experience that this album provided. Danny captured the arctic beauty and danger fantastically on this album. I also really appreciated the addition of the Russian pieces that added a lovely ode to the crew of the ship that he got to stay on. I thoroughly enjoy a unique piece of work and I have to say this one is worthy of multiple listens. After going through this album 3 times now, I will definitely be going over to Danny’s bandcamp page to order a vinyl copy of the album for my collection. Since this album, he has released one additional record, A New Coat of Paint (Volume 2), which sees Danny rerecording some of his older works. He’s also released several singles and an EP. His most recent release is a cover of the song “Whole of the Moon”. I highly recommend this album to anyone who enjoys an immersive experience in their music. My personal favorites:
- “The Fall” (featuring Chris Hadfield)
- “Down Down Down”
- “The Dishwasher’s Dream”
- “24,000 Horses”
My overall rating: 9 out of 10 pieces of glacial ice…
Danny’s Bandcamp page: https://dannymichel.bandcamp.com/music