Ols – Pustkowia Review

It’s been too long since I’ve happened upon some neofolk. Grabbing those folk albums that aren’t all that cheery and reviewing them is one of the best parts of writing here, and some of my favorite discoveries have been neofolk—including all of my albums of the year to date, for that matter. So I was thrilled to discover Pustkowia, the third full-length release from Poland’s Anna Maria Olchawa, the sole member of the project Ols. Described as an homage to emptiness for fans of Agalloch, Myrkur, and Heilung, how could I resist? Of course, expectation is always dangerous, and I’m hyping up the style big time. Does Pustkowia deliver? Can it?

Sure it can; I am a reasonable listener, but more important is that Ols approaches her music with the kind of experience and confidence you’d normally expect from a much larger group of musicians. From the first second of opener “Pustacie,” (“Empty Lands”) when layered vocals solely carry the song into a ritualistic trance, it’s clear that Olchawa knows exactly what she’s doing. Light percussion and flutes show up shortly after, but the vocals are the immediate stars of the show. Pustkowia is a heavily vocal-driven album, with layers upon layers of singing, chanting, and even simple breathing whisking the listener away as far away as their minds can go. That all of the singing is in Polish is a great feature if you happen to not speak Polish—the incomprehensible, beautiful wall of emotive singing sounds all the more powerful for not being able to decipher it in any way.1

It really is amazing how much Ols can accomplish with only her voice, a handful of traditional instruments, and what I can only describe as a fantastic talent for songwriting. “Głosy” (“Voices”) is a great example of the kind of fast-paced, exciting2, and memorable things you can do with this style, with its chorus in particular oozing melody and feeling. “Pustka-Wschód” (“Void-East”) is much more somber, with a distressingly sad approach to neofolk. It takes its time, allowing singing, flute, and a beautifully-narrated poem in Ukranian as the song’s centerpiece. These are atmospheres that remind me of Eluveitie’s Evocation albums, but with stronger catharses and frankly better structures in many cases.

Of course, there are instruments too, and songs that lean far closer to metal than others. If I have any criticisms to offer, they might be that these could have been incorporated in different ways. “Nie ma światła w oknach” (“There Is No Light in These Windows”) is a rare song on Pustkowia that uses both electric guitar and harsh roars, which suits its intense, ritualistic feel nicely. “Auf dieser einsam menschenfernen höhe” is purely instrumental, a much more traditional style of folk music that helps break up the album in a welcome way. Part of the reason it’s so welcome is that the constant intensity of the many, many-layered vocal lines can become a bit much after a while—it causes some songs to blend together a bit, and gives the album a rather uniform identity, which makes it sound whole, but also causes it to sound a bit homogenous at times. I should emphasize “a bit” and “at times”—you can only criticize “too much of a good thing” so strongly, after all.

Ols has released a very strong album with Pustkowia. It has an authentic, organic, and cathartic feel to it that only the most earnest music can deliver. It is simple in concept and gorgeous in execution. “Ciemniej” (“Darker”) is haunting my dreams, and “W zapomnienie” (“Into Oblivion”) is my newest companion for sad days.3 If this is any kind of indicator of Olchawa’s talent, I’ll be diving into her other albums immediately, and eagerly looking forward to her next one too.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Pagan Records
Websites: paganrecords.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/Olsproject
Releases Worldwide: October 20th, 2022

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Amusingly, the artist/label did include a lyrics sheet with the album (and thank you very much for that if you’re reading!), but it’s almost useless because of how thickly-layered the singing is. I say almost because knowing what she’s singing about provides valuable context, but following along was a nonstarter from the beginning.
  2. Again, we’re talking neofolk here. Grain of salt, people.
  3. Of which I’ve had a few lately, which I can blame for both the lateness of this review and my strong emotional connection to it. Apologies to the artist for that—and thank you as well.
« »