Zalmoxe by Sfinx, 1978  

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Although I have written briefly about progressive rock, I shied away thus far from Romanian progressive rock. That's rather odd, considering that the apogee of that genre in Romania is universally considered to be the eponymous Zalmoxe by Sfinx, released (more like “censored”) in 1978.

Zalmoxe_(album cover)-sfinx-dan-andrei-aldea design by Alexandru AndriesIt’s tough to write about a pioneering album that has meant so much to so many, especially when none or very few of them would be reading this article, and my own emotional connection to this music is hardly as strong as to that of Adrian Enescu, for instance – I was not exposed to it in my formative years. Nonetheless, a while back I added a link to the album on top of the logo in the desktop version (“LP”), so that anyone reading my blog can listen to it as background to their reading.

Progressive rock is meant to be a deeply immersive, often solitary experience – it is, after all, the precursor of psychedelic rock, just like Punk precedes Goth, which precedes Emo. (De gustibus…) Incidentally, Dan Andrei Aldea (DAA) counts among his idols / inspiration Jon Anderson from Yes. Their most popular creation is Owner of a Lonely Heart, recently remixed by Max Graham, but the one that most influenced DAA was, according to himself, Olias of Sunhillow (1976). The video clips are bursting of symbolism, so consider watching them in their entirety.

Originally created as a double LP, it took 2 years for the album to be released by the censors, partly (I’m guessing) because of the non-compromising personality of the main creative force behind the group and the music. Only the following tracks made it:

  1. Ursitoarele (“The Faites” – women or witches who had the power to “set” someone’s fate at birth)
  2. Blana de urs (“The Bearskin” – used in many Romanian folk traditions; Porphiros explained the origin of the name Zalmoxis from the Tracian word “zalmos” meaning skin, fur which matches an anecdote stating that he had been covered with a bearskin at birth; this caused some authors to consider him a Bärengott)
  3. Mierea (“The Honey” – Romania has been a major “apiculture centre” for a long time; honey is also preferred by bears and it becomes a divine potion when Zalmoxe takes it with him to the cave)
  4. Pestera (“The Cave” – Zalmoxe and other Romanian mystics would live in a caves for a while, when seeking isolation)
  5. Epifania (“The Epiphany” – a necessary step in the Hero’s Journey)
  6. Furtuna cu trup de balaur (“The Storm with a Dragon Body” – see the Dacian flag, Draco)
  7. Cãlãtorul prin nouri (“The Traveler through the Clouds” – what the Dacians called their priests); the title / theme of this song reminds of Carare peste Timp (i.e., “Pathway over Time” cf. Romanian) by Compact, one of the fav rock songs of my youth. (..And when the sky cries with tears that fall through the clouds, Put wind on your lips, with water wings fly, Alone on the mountain, high up in the blue remnant of the horizon, So that between stratosphere and the stars you be Time’s measure!)
  8. Kogaion (the ancient sacred mountain of the Dacians, axis mundi, where Zalmoxis or his great priest lived, cf. Strabon)
  9. Epilog (“Epilogue”)

The lyrics, written by Adrian Hoaja signing as Alexandru Basarab, reveal some very thorough research and are available only for the initiatedYin Yang – also provided by veone Thumbsup (ve-lyr). Here’s a taste from Epilogue (translated from Romanian original, via Wikipedia): What was to be said, we said. Who can today say more: who he was, if he was, whether man he was or god, or human form with dragon spirit. (...) If he lived in the air, underground or in the sea, who knows?

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The history of the band (bm-biosfinx, cdp-istorie, cir-muz70, ager-hist, buc-sfinx, rgc-rockhist) is less interesting to me than the biography of Dan Andrei Aldea, even though he had not been a founding member and the band went on for a while even after his departure.

What was I to choose: to return, so that I can never leave the country again not even for Bulgaria? Being prey again to everyone who wants to profit from me? To be insulted by nullities such as Magdin? To let every idiot from the Ministry of Culture tell me what to do and what not to do? To look forward at my next home search when gentlemen in military jeeps come and say they seek gold, but in fact, confiscate even the smallest written piece of paper? (You know how they came? ... Like vultures, suddenly at all our houses: at my parents' house, even to grandmother's house, which led ultimately to the death of my parents). To see once again how Maria [wife of musician - n.RL.] losing a so-desired child, while doctors at the hospital leave her for days with the dead child inside, because a committee had to find that it was not an abortion, and they even made fun of her bringing her to tears? (rl-int)

Undoubtedly, he was a victim of a mentally ill regime, perhaps slightly more so than most other Romanians. However, I cannot help feeling that he may be exaggerating some of the issues he encountered. It is a problem many asylum seekers face, after having gone through the process of applying for political asylum.

When I first heard about Dan Andrei Aldea, the main man behind the group, I was surprised to what extent he and Sfinx are interconnected with the Romanian idols of my youth:

  • For their best album, they found a common source of inspiration with this blog: Zalmoxis
  • The surrealist LP design belongs to Alexandru Andries (andries-zamo) and so do the band members portraits. You can listen to some of his songs in an article dedicated to jazz.
  • DAA wrote a song on Marin Sorescu’s lyrics and was censored shortly thereafter. It is a poem of defiance dedicated to caterpillars and their attack on fruit trees, but in 1979 it seemed like a parody to communism-realism, the cultural current du jour (sucu-noinu).
  • DAA found asylum in Germany, just like Phoenix, Herta Muller and Stefan Hell, the 2014 Chemistry Nobel Prize Winner before him. In a way, he was a victim of the cultural “squeeze” that took place post-1974 as well as the previously discussed Romanian Germanophilia.

The above are only the most obvious connections, but if you bother to follow DAA’s life and work through the links listed below, you may discover far more (jn-incerc, rl-int).

  1. was a musician with classical training, having attended a music-profiled high-school (George Enescu, in Bucharest) as well as the Conservatory (Ciprian Porumbescufilm), though he’d been kicked out, using that time to teach himself guitar; he studied classical and rock music in parallel; one of his earlier, lesser-known bands was Dacicus
  2. describes his intense, obsessive approach to music learning and practicing; he played multiple instruments, achieving a level of excellence seldom reached even by those playing a single instrument
  3. openly criticized the regime policy of refusing visas to home-grown bands: „As long as bands such as Locomotiv GT or Sirius from Hungary, Ialla from USSR or Ceslaw Niemen from Poland can give concerts in other countries, even if they are not better value wise, we have to find satisfaction in what’s left for us - singing in a restaurant, possibly abroad. It pains me that large bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Johnny Winter had the opportunity to present to the world of pop music processed from our folklore, while we can not do this with our own national music” —interview in „Flacăra” (Flame), 1973
  4. he requested political asylum in 1981 in a Belgium tour; later he declared that his decision had been building up for years
  5. gave somewhat contradictory interviews: he doesn’t care much about being a frontman, is bitter about Sfinx and the other band members, yet he claims that Romania wasn’t good to him, did not deserve him and that a musician such as himself is only born once 100 years
  6. has a recording studio in Germany and collaborations with many musicians, though none nearly as well known there as he was in Romania (daa-studio)

Going back to the Zalmoxe album, in terms of reception, it is worth mentioning that most old time rock aficionados in Romania are still debating whether the apogee of Romanian rock is Cantafabule or Zalmoxe. It is obviously a matter of preference, with Phoenix having a more ancient, raw, loud, “balsy/masculine” sound, while Sfinx a more polished, ecclesiastic and melodic (symphonic rock, almost neo-progressive) one. Some (mpro-capo) express a clear, unequivocal preference for Sfinx, while others simply like Phoenix “Balkanised/Folkloric Hard-Prog” and rate each group and album on strengths and weaknesses (ffr-sfnxv). One major difference is that Sfinx as a group is polarized and dominated by DAA, with a homogenous album, while Phoenix is homogenous as a group but has a far more heterogeneous album. In a way, in terms of cohesive theme and popularity, Cantafabule is to Zalmoxe what Family Guy is to SouthPark (top10) or even the Simpsons.

In forum discussion, Ruicu writes in Romanian a quite compelling description in successive posts (ffr-sfnxv).

Sfinx created in tune with the Progress of its time (Genesis ad libitum) while Phoenix went on the style they created" hard-prog Balkan folklore, Romanian or whatever it's called, which they hardened further on this album. Sphinx inferiority of stylistic originality is fully completed but the more complex harmonies and melodies, more refined, more intellectualised, but slightly more pejorative than Phoenix. And the vision of the Dacians, the atmosphere in which you enter Zalmoxe does not feel authentic, because the world they sing is much better (re)created by Phoenix, even they have not touched the Dacians. An archaic world, with scents of shepherds, with mythological creatures, barbaric, rough, dark and dominated by the most direct experiences. Phoenix seem more expressive from this point of view, even though, once again, they are using simpler musical means than Sfinx.

(..) Zalmoxe sounds rounder to me, the pieces are chained more natural, more unified. That's because the story makes it, it's more epic and if we can say so, it's more rock than Cantafabule. It feels like a one man's work. Cantafabulele has chosen a theme that's much more interesting and demanding but which can not be reduced to a series narrative, a story. That's why it's not really a rock opera in the true sense but rather a concept album.

(..) Every time I listen to Zalmoxe can not help thinking that this is compositionally the most demanding album ever made by a Romanian band. But with Phoenix it's something that transcends language. It's a chord in me that Sphinx does not touch and I think it's beyond the normal propagation power of music. Sphinx is a lot of thinking, educated, more know-how to orchestrate, to compose, harmonic and melodic refinement, it's masterful execution, it's everything you want. But it's a classical language, it's a classic, universal sound in progress.

(..) [The sound] is that of a progressive album in the most classical style possible; symphonic, in the tradition of Yes, ELP, Genesis, without which you can not conceive keyboards. Bass and drums sound much closer to the so-called modern sound, that is, to the recording standards of today. Bass is ample, deeper, it surrounds and penetrates you and the drums share that blueprint, with soft faces and no tail. And there are further electronic volumes. Ample and plentiful synthesizers give the impression that the sound is newer, more recent, "better" and the voices of Aldea often with harmonic role, are mixed by the same standards, seemingly with chorus or something that modulates the timbre. I am not aware of the same sound to have appeared on another Romanian album since.

Rather than translate Romanian reviews in English, I would much rather quote reviews by foreigners, written directly in English.

Many years ago, Moris Mateljan posted the following review of Sfinx (pf-sfza).

When my mother told me that she plans to go to Romania to discover the unknown, I
took a quick browse on the Internet, and I gave her the list of Romanian prog bands
that I was able to find on web.

Two weeks later she came back with loads of souvenirs, Dracula T-shirt, few Romanian
recorders and small flutes and a yellow cassette.

That yellow cassette appeared to be SFINX's "Zalmoxe", poor edition without any
details in inner sleeve, not even the year of issue. Just terribly printed list of
tracks, and these track appeared to be in different order from the CD issues that
I've found on Web. Maybe because of tape length. And no bonus tracks here. So I
placed a tape into my cassette player...

...and didn't move or breathe for next 45 minutes.

What can I say about this gem? It sounds like these guys came out of nowhere,
reinventing the music and making an album that can't be compared to anything, because
it's so unique.

There are quite a few multilayered vocals, based on orthodox monastery prayers.

Somehow that reminds me of QUEEN, rather than URIAH HEEP or GENTLE GIANT. Electric
guitar is doing some nice job here and there, but the keyboards got the prominent
role. You can here some nice odd time signature sequences (based on the Balkan music)
that reminds me of LEB I SOL or perhaps AREA's synth solos (only not so raw) and calm
pads surrounding the vocals. These pads are the reason why this album sounds ahead of
its time, really, it sounds like a mixture of symphonic keyboard oriented rock and
ballads that could perfectly fit in a role of any of the 1980's world soccer championship
anthems. But don't get me wrong, this formula works fine, because every moment you
can expect a cross fade between ballad part and some absolutely insane sounds.
Production is fine, sounds quite polished (in a good way).

Again, what can I say... I'm hesitating to give this album five stars because of
occasional inconsistencies (some tracks are not weaker, they're just less enjoyable),
and because some tracks could've been more developed. Actually, they are developed
enough, but in which direction? This album is so strange, and so hard to rate. I
guess you can easily call it a masterpiece, or dislike it...but definitely well worth
giving a try.

Perhaps I should try to summarize it, but that’s hard to do without losing the original sense of wonder and enthusiasm among these reviewers.

On ProgArchives (pa-zalm), Clem of Nazareth (Bob Moore?) gives it 4/5 stars in August 2009. He makes at least one factual error debatable assertion (“Greek cult figure Zalmoxis”).

This album turned out to be everything I read it would be and more – what an outstanding piece of seventies prog! Romanians may be familiar with Sfinx, but for guys like me on the other side of the world this is a band and a record that is a delight to discover even more than thirty years after its release.

I suppose the band may rate a ‘progressive folk’ label based on the lyrical theme of this album, or perhaps thanks to a few lighter and somewhat pastoral tunes on the record such as “Mierea” or the ambient and heavily synthesized “Cãlãtorul prin nori”; not sure. In reality though this could easily be considered a symphonic rock band with their extensive use of keyboards, tight electric guitar riffs and regular rock-opera, swelling arrangements reminiscent of the American art rock band Styx circa the same timeframe (listen to “Kogaion” and tell me you don’t hear “Mr. Roboto”, or a viber similar to “Fooling Yourself” on “Blana De Urs”).

These are not ripoffs or tributes though, but rather a quartet of dedicated musicians half a world away from the rock arenas of North America, discovering their own sound and apparently in spirited competition with countrymen Phoenix for the hearts and minds of adventurous music lovers in Communist-era Romania. This was originally supposed to be released in 1975 and was also supposed to be a double album, but thanks to government bureaucracy and censorship was reduced to just forty-two minutes (plus a few bonus tracks on the reissue).

Not that I’m complaining; the music that made it to release is top-notch as the band relates the life story of Greek cult figure Zalmoxis as told in the lyrics of Romanian poet Adrian Hoajă. I’m sure the storyline enhances the appeal of the album for native speakers, but I’m quite impressed simply by the quality of the music without even knowing more than just the theme of the songs themselves. Like I said, if you were into seventies arena art-rock bands like Styx, the Nice or even ELO you should find this album appealing. At times it’s heavier and more proggy than those bands though, who tend to be known as more commercial (and rightfully so). Sfinx take their craft a bit more seriously I think, as evidenced in the wickedly heavy instrumental (guitar/keyboards) dirge “Kogaion” or the spacey “Calatorul Prin Nori” (the traveler through clouds). That latter one has a few issues with the production quality, which in general is good on the album but uneven in just a few spots.

I really wonder what the other disc’s worth of music that was cut from this record sounded like. One can imagine a true rock opera with deep forays into synthesizer and guitar riffs stretching out over well over an hour; perhaps someday the suppressed tapes will be reunited with this music and a proper reissue can be made.

In the meantime, check out this four-star genuine prog rock gem. Highly recommended for prog folk, symphonic rock and art rock fans in general. Well worth a listen.

And this is pretty much my humble contribution to a Romanian rock band that did more for explaining the Zalmoxis story than I could do with my blog.

LE: Krossfire brought to my attention in comments that he's come back to Romania giving his first recital (within Pasarea Colibri’s) with Brad Batran and mostly covers after 33 years, in Oradea.

Sources / More info: andries-zamo, sucu-noinu, discogs-zalmo, pf-sfza, ve-lyr, pa-zalm, bm-biosfinx, cdp-istorie, cir-muz70, ager-hist, buc-sfinx, rgc-rockhist, mpro-capo, ffr-sfnxv, jn-incerc, rl-int, wr-daa, 3x-intda, as-int, as-drept, daa-studio

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