On the surface, Small Obstacles is all about the sea: as the liner notes proclaim, The journey, the waves. The swell of the tide, the motion of drift. The opening sound is midway between a breath and a shore. We’ve been yearning for ocean songs as we have for summer, at the end of a long, cold winter reluctant to turn to spring. This album provides a foretaste of the joys to come.
But Small Obstacles is also about time, and cycles, and birth ~ specifically the birth of little Elena, who heard these songs in the womb and swam through a canal to land safely in the realm of earth and air. Physically and metaphorically, these three musicians have also gone through numerous changes since the album was first conceived. Recorded over the course of a decade in “kitchens, gardens and living rooms,” the set seems tailor-made for a label named Home Records. The music feels like home, despite its local Belgian flavors; this is the sound of family, friends and warmth. Looking back at the last decade, the trio concludes that its trials were but small obstacles to overcome on their way to releasing their debut disc.
The phrase Zura Zaj is actually Hungarian, a roommate’s categorization of the music as “strange sounds.” The irony is that these sounds are not strange at all. They are in turn elegant, ebullient and open-armed. The entry of the brass in “Landfall” may even remind some of Sigur Rós’ “Sé Lest,” no small feat given the fact that this is a single horn rather than a marching band. Each player has their time in the sun, resulting in different timbres. When the violin takes center stage, the tone is that of modern chamber; when the guitar is the lead instrument, the music is folk, bordering on post-rock. This tonal flexibility not only keeps the album intriguing, but lends a distinct shape to each song.
It all comes back to the sea, and the lessons therein. Titles such as “Atoll” and “Tide” keep the subject matter close, and the simple video for “Alight” provides a visual corollary, waves moving backward and forward like the memories and dreams of new parents. Consider Small Obstacles a comforting parable, a celebration of life or a sneak peek of summer; every interpretation works. The overriding message: whatever has happened, good things are yet to come. (Richard Allen)