Review Summary: A story worth telling
Sometime during the overnight hours of February 2, 1959, nine people were killed as they trekked across the eastern side of Kholat Syakhl in Russia’s Ural Mountains. The hikers, at some point during the night, inexplicably tore out of their tents and fled their campsite, vanishing into the heavy snowfall to meet their imminent deaths. It is a mystery that is among the more bizarre untold stories of the world, but often it is the stories where the mind is left to fill in the blanks that offer the most intrigue. Kauan, a doom metal/post-rock outfit from Chelyabinsk, Russia intends to fill the gaps that perplexed investigators with their own creative flair. For a band that is known for crafting delicate yet vast soundscapes, this is itself a jarring turn towards the macabre, yet it remains aptly fitting given their penchant for storytelling.
Anyone who listened to Pirut
knows that Kauan are more about the journey rather than the destination, and that really is what makes this concept album work so well. We know the ending, and know just how ghastly it really is, but no one knows for sure the horrors that led up to that ending. None of the bodies revealed any signs of a struggle, yet two of the victims had broken ribs and fractured skulls, one had major chest fractures, and one was missing her tongue. Many were barefoot when they died, and grossly under-clothed for the harsh Russian winter that they fled in to the night they were killed. It is a morbid coincidence, then, that Kholat Syakhl is a transliteration of the local name meaning “Dead Mountain”. What is interesting to note, though, in Kauan’s 52-minute Sorni Nai
is that the music is not always as morose as the subject matter would lead you to believe. The operatic nature of the compositions weave between long stretches of instrumental flourishing, caving on occasion for dirges of melancholy clean singing that dominates the vocal landscape.
That’s not to say the record relies on a folk-tinged post-rock atmosphere to carry such a heavy tale. Brief as they may be, there are moments of heavy electric guitar and sporadic rasps as harsh vocals carry the story’s traumatic underpinnings. It was, after all, a group of young students who lost their lives that night, and the way Sorni Nai
carries itself from serene beginnings through majestic highs and finally into dejected, crushing doom shows that this story, like many great tragedies, has happiness and life in abundance before the final collapse. The moods are in constant motion as the guitars craft melodies and the synths weave in dense atmosphere. Building orchestras clash against swelling keys; acoustic guitars dance amidst soaring electric melodies. Using the dichotomy between the deep, comforting cleans and monumentally crushing guitars Sorni Nai
creates vivid color where lesser bands would otherwise muddle in different shades of grey, and while the record peaks in a crescendo that is as dark and mysterious as the concept itself, the band do not make that the defining point of the album.
To me, Sorni Nai
is not so much about the brutal deaths of the poor young hikers as it is about the sheer force of nature, the daunting ways in which it can show its wrath, and just how much we are at its mercy. After the corpses were unearthed – a process which took months as they were buried under meters of snow – the Soviets determined that the deaths were caused by an “unknown compelling force”. There are theories about the causes of death to include extraterrestrial life and military accidents, but the most plausible – and perhaps most frightening – is that the camp was taken by avalanche. With just enough warning to flee blindly into a snowstorm, the group likely burst from their tents to avoid a coming avalanche, with no time to know where they were even running to, let alone have the time to properly dress to avoid their ultimate succumbing to hypothermia. Sorni Nai
is simultaneously the personification of human helplessness in the face of the unknown and the soundtrack of a baffling mystery. Most of all, though, the record is a tragedy that is brought to life to make you feel the harrowing emotions that the tale invokes. A lot of what Kauan have done in the past can be best described as evocative, but the storytelling displayed on Sorni Nai
is on another level entirely, bringing the unknown to life before our eyes.