A Refreshingly 'un-Tel Avivian' Sound

Seven years after Melechet broke up when a few of its members became religious, two of the original bandmates are back with an ambitious rock trilogy.

After seven years of work, Melechet has released an ambitious rock trilogy called "Under the Red Tree."

The album includes three discs, of which the first two feature songs about relationships between a man and a woman. The first is characterized by childlike innocence and broken hearts; the second gives voice to the more chilling and bleaker side of relationships; and Part 3, which is called "Yearnings," is an audio tale that is in effect a love story about the state, and which is presented as a dialogue between an Israeli boy named Noah and an Israeli soldier named Koah (Power ).

"Under the Red Tree," released last week, comes seven years after the band's first album, "In Between," which was released in 2005 and which dealt with the bleeding reality in Israel. Though it was written and sung entirely in Hebrew, the album enjoyed surprising success in Japan. But after the album came out, the band broke up, after a number of its members became religious.

But the core members, Yaniv Ben Pinhas and Shani Bruner, continued to make music. "During that period we talked a lot about religion," says Ben Pinhas, 36. "The whole band was dealing with the subject. We would come to the recording studio and mostly take advantage of it for existential discussions, mostly about God. Is there any topic more interesting than that? In the time that remained, we would record music."

"Shani [Bruner] and I met and tried to establish a band, but after the departure of our virtuoso guitarist, Noam Harel, who led the first album in the direction of progressive rock, Shani and I started to reinvent ourselves," Ben Pinhas adds. Bruner, 28, is the musical mind of the ensemble - he is a classical pianist who writes music for the theater and is a member of The Black Velvet Band, which plays Irish music. Ben Pinhas is the soloist and is responsible for lyrics. The other current members of Melechet are Shimi Habib (bass ), Alon Lugasi (guitar ) and Tal Ronen (drums ).

Part 1 of "Under the Red Tree" came out separately last year, and it moves the listener to tears. Two of the songs on part one accompanied the Kolben Dance Company's modern dance piece "Babel" at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv.

That disc was not reviewed in this column then because the two additional parts were still on their way.

The band has since re-recorded the music for Part 1 for the trilogy. "In the first version we used music industry people, and in the re-mastered version we recorded it ourselves," Ben Pinhas explains, adding that he is tired of hearing that all the songs on the radio sound the same, and that in his opinion this is because the same industry people do mixes for everyone.

Ben Pinhas notes that he was criticized after he issued the debut album with Melechet. "They called us pretentious. They said it didn't sound at all like Dream Theater [a popular progressive rock band], even though we never even tried to sound like them."

An act of courage

Now, with the launch performance of "Under the Red Tree" slated for November 28 at the Lagansky Pub in Netanya, which is owned by Ben Pinhas, and the work on a stage production based on Part 3 under way, it is appropriate to cast a spotlight on Melechet. The release of a three-part concept album in the era of the death of the disc is a courageous move. The members of the band know very well that this is not going to pay their rent. Their ambition is purely artistic.

Bruner, who was doing his army service when he joined the band, says that he saw in it "something very special and strange, very alternative." He says his connection with Ben Pinhas was instantaneous, in part due to the fact that "both of us were attracted to the same weirdness."

"The songs are very sad," he explains. "They really make you want to cry, but at the same time, in a lot of them there is hope - and a wink of optimism. It isn't that we invented that idea, but I think we succeeded in doing it in an original way. Even the first album, which is so very tragic, ends with an optimistic song."

Bruner notes that Part 1 is his favorite in the trilogy: "I have always loved terribly sad music, but the idea wasn't to create music that is solely depressing," he says.

One such example is "The Hidden Song" in the middle of Part 1. The song features the lyrics: "I have no body, I have no name / I move with what is happening / I don't eat and I don't drink / I only want to get high," and ends, in the last verse, with a feeling of victory. In the background, the band repeats, "Never give up," and Ben Pinhas sings: "Until now I thought I had touched the truth / I very quickly understood that everything is nearly already dead / I drank the lava that slaughtered my soul / free on the highway."

For Ben Pinhas, is it Part 3 that is his "pride as a writer," he says. The character Noah in Part 3 "is an innocent boy who asks legitimate questions," he says. "'What is all the fuss about? Explain it to me,' he asks."

Ben Pinhas says he chose to name the boy Noah "because the biblical Noah was a figure admired because of his innocence. He is the hero of the innocents. Like all children, I too dreamt of saving the world."

"A child, [Noah] has a tendency to speak the truth," says Ben Pinhas. "Without sophistries, without bullshit."

Indeed, the theme of childhood is present throughout the album, not only in Noah's character in Part 3 but also in much of the innocence displayed in Parts 1 and 2.

"'You left me, I feel awful now and that's it' - that's what I am writing about," says Ben Pinhas. "All the songs are based on incidents and stories that happened, real relationships."

It is particularly important to Ben Pinhas to mention the last song in the trilogy, which closes "Yearnings" and is called "I Believe."

"A number of miracles happened to us in the studio. It isn't something that can be dismissed lightly," he says, emotionally. "I wrote this song in no more than three minutes. Shani brought a melody, I sat down and wrote the words in one take, and somehow the melody simply fit the words perfectly. This is something scary - it's unbelievable that words written in a single moment would fit a melody playing in the background. This is the cosmic connection between us."

Decidedly un-Tel Aviv

There is something decidedly un-Tel Avivian about Melechet's work, which is timeless and not bound by contemporary trends - much like the musicians the band members themselves respect. More than once, Ben Pinhas mentions the band Algier, which hails from Moshav Talmei Eliyahu in the south. Bruner, who lives on a moshav near Netanya, also mentions Gabriel Balachsan, who was a member of Algier, as a major inspiration.

"I think that nowadays few people are doing art in music," says Ben Pinhas. "Everyone is much too concerned with sound, with it being contemporary, but they aren't coming to say something to the world anymore. Not like they were saying in the 1960s and the 1970s, when musicians were shouting slogans that even leaders didn't dare to utter."

So, what's a red tree, anyway? "There is no such thing as a red tree," Ben Pinhas says. "It is an image, an imaginary tree that channels all the loves, be they for a woman, for friends or for the state. When I was little and I played soccer at Maccabi Netanya, we had a tree there with red fruit that we'd eat. We called them 'the reds.' It's a tree I remembered from my childhood - the red tree."