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Culture Shock: Rocking out, Slovak style

BECAUSE it's not always easy to keep up with the US underground industrial-rock scene when you're living in Liptovský Mikuláš, or the guitar-driven rock bands from Great Britain I so dearly love, I jumped at the chance to witness an exposition of local music when it recently came my way. After all, I thought, perhaps I would be turned on to something new. At the very least, I hoped I would have an enjoyable evening out.
As it happened, it was an event of ups and downs and everything in between. In general, I found the caliber of musical talent to be surprisingly high, especially considering it all came from this semi-secluded northern valley. While certain folks are bound to be put off by one or two acts in any variety show, the fact that little Liptov can produce an evening of such varied styles reflects not only the boundless reaches of music, but also the will of the local people to explore them.


SOME Slovak musicians love to go country and western.
photo: TASR

BECAUSE it's not always easy to keep up with the US underground industrial-rock scene when you're living in Liptovský Mikuláš, or the guitar-driven rock bands from Great Britain I so dearly love, I jumped at the chance to witness an exposition of local music when it recently came my way. After all, I thought, perhaps I would be turned on to something new. At the very least, I hoped I would have an enjoyable evening out.

As it happened, it was an event of ups and downs and everything in between. In general, I found the caliber of musical talent to be surprisingly high, especially considering it all came from this semi-secluded northern valley. While certain folks are bound to be put off by one or two acts in any variety show, the fact that little Liptov can produce an evening of such varied styles reflects not only the boundless reaches of music, but also the will of the local people to explore them.

The show began with three older men dressed in red- and black-checkered flannel shirts, tucked tightly over beer-inflated bellies into pressed black jeans. In front of them stood two synthesizers and some microphones. It is truly a unique experience to hear a tempo-heavy guitar strummed over recorded drum loops, accompanied by synthesized sounds for harmonization. Add to that the Slovak language being sung with a Southern twang and you've got yourself in a twisted episode of The Twilight Zone on heavy medication. Still, the packed audience gave this band a polite cheer when it finished, for the ever-hospitable people up here in Liptov don't like to let a solid effort go unappreciated.

However, when the next band - a heavy-metal outfit - came on, it took approximately 3.6 seconds for the two ladies on my left to excuse themselves temporarily. Given the amped-up metal streaming from the speakers, and considering I speak just a smattering of Slovak, I could only discern a bit of what they said to me. The message was clear, though - heavy metal is not for everyone. Coincidentally, the duration of their absence lasted exactly as long as the time this group remained onstage, or maybe a minute or two more (just to make sure).

Quite honestly, though, the group wasn't half bad, and at the risk of forfeiting all my credibility in the eyes of my classical-music-only mother, I say this from the point of view of one who regularly enjoys heavy metal. The band even took a stab at singing in English, but this, when announced by the MC before their performance, produced a subtle rumbling of groans throughout the crowd.

For all their ambitions and potential, however, the singer unfortunately had the stage presence of a teakettle. Sure, he sported the obligatory long heavy-metal 'hairdo', stretched out his arms, palms upward, and jiggled his tilted-back head a bit at times when he felt the music was especially triumphant, but he looked about as natural as a Slovak in cowboy boots.

Brief aside: If you want proof of this phenomenon, check out the Reštaurácia Country in Poprad. If you're lucky, your waiter will be decked out in a 10-gallon hat and sheriff's badge, as was mine. The guy even moseyed as if saddle sore and wore a smile as wide as the brim of his hat.

After the heavy-metal band had completed its set, on came what had to be the highlight of the evening for me. A quintet of 'young-ins' took to the stage for an amazing display of technical prowess, synchronization, and originality not often found in professional music, much less in gymnasium-aged students. Polyrythmic themes juiced up by excellent drumming and some wicked VanHalen-style guitar solos proved impressive.

Without a doubt, they reinforced the notion that the most promising artists are often overlooked or lost on account of their location. Can you imagine Geffen Records making a special trip out to northern Slovakia on the off chance they'll catch a couple of kids who, armed with only their raw musical ability, could wipe many a polished Western band off the stage? Hardly, and it's a shame.

I only wish the next group could have maintained the teenagers' high standards. Instead, it seemed as though they entered a time warp, lapsing into early 1970s jam rock while the grey-haired (and balding) singer belted out indecipherable lyrics. They soon became lost in a sea of swirling psychedelica, caught somewhere in the musical Bermuda Triangle of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.

Yet much to my surprise, this throwback was the most popular act of the night. Loud whooping, accompanied by emphatic clapping, came almost immediately upon the conclusion of their final song.

The 600-some people crammed into that communist-era theatre were visibly and audibly excited by these guys, and while he couldn't muster up the same level of adulation, one humble Westerner managed a polite cheer in return for a job well done.

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