Israeli Band Harnesses the Entrancing Power of Repetition

Looping, the unusual sounds of a unique cello, and compelling vocals make D.R.Y.’s new album, recorded live in a Jerusalem club, hypnotizing to the listener.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Itay Sendowski, Dmitry Polykov and Ran Nahmias make up the D.R.Y. trio.
Itay Sendowski, Dmitry Polykov and Ran Nahmias make up the D.R.Y. trio. Credit: Olga Finkelstein
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Any band whose name is composed of individual letters is a riddle that begs to be solved. It is difficult to sit back and listen before you decipher what’s going on, and the band known as D.R.Y. wants us to listen to them in a relaxed state. D.R.Y. – what does it mean? A feeling of parchedness prevails, and the vocal-lashing staccato of Dmitry Polykov confirms it. The number 3 and the German language also seem to hover over the name, both of which are justified. D.R.Y. is a trio, and German does indeed appear suddenly every so often on their new album, mainly for the effect of the sound, ja?

But there is something else. Periods separate the three letters of the band’s name. They look like initials. Maybe of the three band members? Dmitry (Polykov): it fits. Ran (Nahmias): it fits. Itay (Sendowski): doesn’t fit. That would come out D.R.I. So what is D.R.Y.? The third song on the new and outstanding album of the band, “Live at HaMazkeka” which was recorded in concert at HaMazkeka, a club in Jerusalem, puts an end to all the guesswork. It is called “Don’t Repeat Yourself.” An important imperative to every area of life, and art in particular.

The thing is that if you have to use one word to describe the music of D.R.Y., it may be that this word should be “repetitive.” The basic principle of this music is the principle of repetition. The tracks on the album almost always start with a bass line that Nahmias plays on his unusual cello (which is called a silent cello; we’ll get to that later on). Then comes a sampling on the looper (a device that enables one musician to create several levels of sound in real time). The basic bass stroke, which is played by the device, starts to go around in a loop, backed up by Sendowski’s drums (or those of Assaf Tager, who plays on some of the album’s tracks). Nahmias is freed up to lay down another layer of cello on top of it, which is also sampled by the looper and becomes part of the revolving loop. Polykov fires his demands into this musical machine; on some of the tracks the trio is joined by the guitarist Ram Orion.

Creative tension

In short, the principle is not “don’t repeat yourself,” but neither is it “repeat yourself.” The principle is “don’t repeat yourself while you are repeating yourself.” There is a good fertile creative tension within this paradox. There is a lot of freedom within a restrictive and even imprisoning structure, and that is well suited to Polykov’s monotonous and penetrating style of speech, which at times crashes up against a wall of no way out. “A round/ and another round/ I am all wet/ I am like a fly/ in the winter/ Cannot fly/ A fly/ I feel/ I can see/ that death is approaching/ I will die/ in a second/ in a minute/ I am the fly/ fly/ Television is death/ The news is death/ Politics is death/ Democracy is death/ death/ death/ death/ death.” In truth, it doesn’t sound all that extreme these days.

This track, “Fly,” which opens the album and is the only song on which Polykov talks-sings in Hebrew (the rest of the tracks are in English), with Teutonic flickers, sets the expectation for a dry, nightmarish, newsy, fire-spitting album. At the start it even directs the listener’s attention to this channel at the expense of other channels existing on the album. The strongest impression is left by the lengthy riffs that increase in intensity and culminate in Polykov’s shrieking. The shorter tracks, which are served up at lower temperatures but have no less of a gloomy air about them, start off sounding way too domesticated. But that isn’t the case. This is another side of D.R.Y. and it is no less compelling.

This understanding was sharpened at a recent performance of the band at Yom Tov Café, a Tel Aviv bar. It is interesting to listen to a band’s live album and enjoy it, and then see the band perform live and enjoy it in a different way. The advantage of the live show over the album is that you can see the band, and even though Polykov is the performer who draws most of our attention, the listener’s eyes are in fact focused on Ran Nahmias, or more specifically, his cello.

Even after the show, I cannot understand why Nahmias calls it a “silent cello,” but what an instrument it is! Nahmias built it himself, that is clear. The body of the cello is much narrower and longer than the body of a regular cello. It looks like an 18th century crossbow. Nahmias dons it like a guitar, or like a spray gun (Fly!), and produces from it a wondrous range of sounds – from a bubbling bass line to the gentlest melodic touches.

This softness was more noticeable in the live performance than on the album, maybe because of the conditions in the bar and maybe because of the spirit that hovered over the ensemble that evening. At the start, guided by the initial impression left on me by the album, I waited for the long, storm-tossed tracks, and when in the middle of one of these tracks Polykov walked down into the crowd, his bald head shining at me from half a meter away, I was sure this was the high point of the show.

It really was a wonderful moment, but what happened during the next track was nothing short of exhilarating. “Hey over there” went on for a lot longer than in the album version, but it lacked the dynamic of intensification building up from spoken word to scream. The volume remained low. Sendowski played at an unhurried beat, Nahmias stroked the chords with his bow, coaxing them into a gorgeous melodic undertone, and then he put down the cello, got down on his knees and fiddled with his effects devices.

Polykov descended from the stage, not to sing from the audience but in order to watch his two partners. And then Nahmias stood up, put his hand in the back pocket of his pants and also got off the stage. Sendowski remained alone, continuing with his excellent minimalist drumming while Polykov and Nahmias watched him together, along with us.

And then Polykov placed his hand on Nahmias’ shoulder and embraced him, as if wordlessly saying “That was wonderful, what you did just now.”

“Can you believe he’s a kindergarten teacher?” said a friend who was standing next to me, pointing at Polykov, who was wearing a skirt. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine any other possibility.