“The album sound is very remote and distant for a reason. It makes it seem detached and heavenly.”
JOI NOIR (pronounced Joy Noir) are a revelation but you’ll know that as soon as you hear them. New songs by a new band rarely make your heart flutter but listening to Mercury and Crashers and Wild Way Hope you can’t help thinking they’re so instantly memorable the band must be wired into an illegal song-writing machine. A pure blast of euphoric alt-rock, their Celeste album has a feel of the classic about it - like something you’ve had knocking around the house for years.
The band take their name from their (erstwhile) constituent parts, namely Olga Gallo (voice), Igor Plotnikov (guitars) and their late drummer Jack Kuznetsov. Both hailing from Russia, Olga and Igor met in Moscow and moved to Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo – hence the Noir in their moniker – before decamping to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where they conceived and recorded the outline of Celeste. “The album encompasses the celestial, the divine, the earth and humankind,” says Olga, who has a BA in Psychology and much experience working with teenagers with drug and alcohol problems. “Did God create man or vice versa? It is about the relationship between all these things.”
Olga originates from Balashov, a very small town in central Russia, dominated by the scarcity of pretty much everything except alcohol (as a substitute for food) and her father’s belt. Here she discovered artists like Jello Biafra, DOA and Bad Religion although her real love for music was awakened by Pixies’ Bossonova album. “It wasn’t punk rock”, she says, “but somehow I loved it.” In contrast, Igor’s childhood was spent in Tyumen, Western Siberia, birthplace of Irving Berlin. At 14 he lived off bottles of vodka stolen from moving trucks, at 16 he enrolled at university in the midst of the Siberian punk explosion, before winding up in a mental institution two years later. At this same tender age, Olga had already moved to “the crazy city” of Moscow, eventually relocating to the city of Barcelona (via Africa and Malaysia - where Joi Noir regularly performed live a magnificent version of the Banshee’s Israelwhich you can still view online) in which she resides today. Together these disparate, perhaps incongruous, geographical but essentially human elements make up Joi Noir and their wonderful album, Celeste.
“Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some of the greats, and Olga Gallo has the raw talent and charisma to be in their company.” Producer Stephen Hague.
Produced by Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order) – “I was attracted to her voice and the demos reminded me of the Banshees, Pixies and Pretenders” – and the band themselves, Celeste kicks off with Intro, a by-product of later track Seashell’s outro where the message is Love Is Hope, - a recurring theme on the album – before segueing into the urgency of Wild Way Hope. WWH features Hague on bass and synth and some killer lyrics - “Driven by some cynic/Still not worth the wait/Careless and blithe/That’s how obscene you’ve been/ In your contested state” - although it’s the “Today, today” refrain that’ll have you reaching for your box of superlatives. After this, we have Mercury, which may be the name of an inhospitable planet and a volatile chemical but for our purposes is the name of one of the last human beings to have survived the apocalypse. The song begins with a guitar riff worthy of John McGeoch (and redolent of anything by Magazine or Ultrasound) and Japanese spoken word translated as “Is there anything that can save the world?” A longer, bonus album version has our intrepid hero - Mercury - in the middle of a conversation that goes like this: “Today is a great day, don't you think?” – “Yes, I absolutely agree with you, despite the fact that our world is going to hell, and we are going there with it” – “Wait! Is there something that might save us?” Mercury answers: “That something is love.”
“She has a flair for singing word sounds that aren’t actual lyrics – she’s very free that way” Producer Stephen Hague
The album continues apace with the Psychedelic Furs-esque Loved You Now, and then Used To Be, which could be Siouxsie Sioux or Florence Welch singing gloriously atop Stones meets New Order. The song features Hague on bass and acoustic guitar as well as James McMillan on trumpet “to give the song an Exile On Main Street vibe” and is “a prayer to someone you’ve been together with for a while.” It’s the perfect prelude to one of the album’s most astonishing tracks, Crashers: ostensibly New Dawn Fades for the now generation, Crashers is about “people or forces who crash your dreams not because of their evil side but because of their nature” and features Olga on 80% of the guitars - of which Hague comments, “she has a feel that I can’t emulate – and I’ve tried!”.
The optimistic Excited (up next) - “We turn all the lights on to fill up the hollow/There’s no place for nightmares/No fear or sorrow/We look up delighted” - could be the Brandon Flowers song that got away and builds up to a joyous crescendo before beckoning in Myth, a gorgeous, reimagined version (where the middle eight becomes the chorus) of US dream-pop outfit Beach House’s 2012 release. It’s a cover, naturally, so we’re not allowed to get too, ahem, excited though perhaps we should about Amber, asong that cuts up lines from Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint - “Of amber, crystal, and of beaded jet” - and a song that’s been through a lot of trauma since its inception at the start of recording last year. “I have a feeling it’s about African slaves being brought to England at the end of the 1700s”, says Olga now. “They were trying to assimilate but they were still true to their African spiritual practices.” The song originally sounded like Joy Division attempting a cover of Bela Lugosi’s Dead before it took a bit of a Paint It Black turn. And now? “I think it’s the most emotional song on the album,” says Olga.
“We really didn't want to get involved with Neil's original sex-bot ordering spoken stuff.”
Having said all that, it’s probably true to say that Celeste’s centerpiece (if not its coda) is Sample and Hold, a cover of a song from Neil Young’s groundbreaking 1982 Trans album. Olga begins and ends the song speaking Russian, Igor plays guitar on the left, Hague the one on the right and the vocoder (utilized by Hague) is all present and correct but it’s the lyrics – “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one/A new design, new design/We'll send it out right away/Satisfaction guaranteed/Please specify/The color of skin and eyes/We know you'll be happy” – (which appear to be about ordering a sex doll online) that particularly resonate: during the recordings, Young revealed that Trans (and its vocoder use in particular) reflected his attempts to communicate with his son who had cerebral palsy and there are major sections of Celeste that could be said to reflect Young’s comments upon release: “You know I'm saying something but you can't understand what it is.”
The album closes with the haunting, Igor-penned, Seashell - the title came about after Igor’s daughter suggested “her voice was like seashell bathed in honey” - which features strings influenced by Jack Nietzsche's work on Neil Young/Buffalo Springfield’s 'Expecting To Fly.' Correspondingly, extra tracks Provincetown – on which Whitey provides spoken word and lines are snatched from Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird Of Youth and The Departed– and Celeste - interestingly, other albums whose title tracks exist elsewhere in their repertoire (and not on the album in question) include Julian Cope’s World Shut Your Mouth, Stranglers’ Men In Black and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery - are available on the bonus disc, but, nonetheless, it’s a beautiful way to sign off this gorgeous record. Enjoy it, love it, tell your friends.
Phill Savidge, July 2018.