New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Lushly Allusive, Symphonic Eco-Disaster Anthems From These New Puritans

These New Puritans occupy a uniquely uneasy space between ornately symphonic rock and minimalist postrock. Their latest album Inside the Rose – streaming at Soundcloud – is somewhat icier and techier than their previous work. The obvious comparison is Radiohead, but this British band are more darkly lyrical and rely on what can be relentless grey-sky sonics instead of cynical glitchiness.

Infinity Vibraphones is an apt title for the album’s opening track, those rippling textures contrasting with ominous cloudbanks of bassy string synth. Frontman Jack Barnett’s hushed, conspiratorial vocals parse a surreal litany of elements, some radioactive and some not. A“sea of plastic horses” figures into what seems to be a dystopic scenario. His brother George’s dancing drumbeat gets trickier and then smooths out again: a more organic Radiohead with a better singer.

The formula is the same in Anti-Gravity, with spare synth and piano figures in place of the vibes: “Never get up, never give up” is the mantra. “This is a fire we can’t put out…all those wise men say nothing,” the group’s frontman intones in the brooding, tectonically shifting, new wave-tinged Beyond Black Suns. The response, through a robotic effect, is “This isn’t yesterday.”

The album’s title track has an airy intro and a staggered beat; it could be an eco-disaster parable, or simply an allusive portrait of love gone wrong. Brassy ambience rises and subsides in Where the Trees Are on Fire, with a crushingly sarcastic ersatz nursery rhyme of a lyric. Into the Fire has tumbling syncopation and unexpected hip-hop touches: it’s nowhere near as incendiary as the title would imply.

The brief string-and-piano theme Lost Angel contrasts with the loopy synths and icy Terminator soundtrack techiness of A R P: “This is not a dream, this is really happening,” the bandleader cautions .

They wrap up the album with a slow, hypnotic, circling processional theme simply titled Six. This is a good record for a rainy day when you can spend some time with it and explore its deceptive depths.

Chelsea Guo Stars on Piano and Vocals on Her New All-Chopin Album

It’s impossible to keep track of how many pianists have sent their interpretations of Chopin here over the years. If only quality matched quantity. Serendipitously, Chelsea Guo’s new album Chopin: In My Voice – streaming at Spotify – is a relatively rare exception, a very smart, insightful collection of the 24 preludes along with the the Fantaisie in F minor and three selections from Chopin’s 17 Polish Songs. Those last three are on the program because Guo distinguishes herself not only as a pianist but as a soprano.

Guo’s use of rubato is masterful. She doesn’t overdo it, so when she loosens the rhythm, there’s always an impact, and her sense of where to weave this into her phrasing – this being Chopin, it’s usually on the somber side here – is laserlike. In general, it seems she prefers to understate a piece and let the music speak for itself rather than overemote. And she takes an architectural view to the development of these works, often following a subtly crescendoing arc.

The E Minor Prelude is particularly good: Guo plays it very straight-up first time through, then backs away for an increasingly unmoored sense of terror and despair. The D Minor Prelude is on the quiet side, but with plenty of feeling and a similarly impactful rhythmic freedom. Strikingly, she hits the C Minor Prelude hard at the beginning and then lets this immortal dirge quietly trail away: if there’s anything in Chopin that’s pure autobiography, this is it, or at least it seems so in Guo’s hands.

As fans of the Preludes know, many of them are miniatures, here and gone in barely the space of a couple dozen bars. Guo typically approaches the rest of them with restraint, although there are exceptions, notably in the lickety-split torrents of the F Sharp minor prelude and the long trajectory of the “Raindrop” prelude in D flat, where she seizes the moment to revisit the sheer desolation of its E minor counterpart. Clearly, she has a close emotional connection with this music.

Guo plays the Fantaisie in F minor as a suite: glittering triumph, a jaunty bit of a dance, introduced and intermingled with wariness. Interestingly, her take of the famous Barcarolle is especially vigorous and turbulent.

She closes the album with the Polish Songs: reaching for the rafters with dramatic power in Maja Pieszczotka; holding back a bit with her vocals before busting loose with Im mir klingt ein Lied and Di Piacer Me Balza Il Cor. Something happens to Guo’s playing when she sings: all of a sudden a coy playfulness appears. This may be a function of the material, but it’s quite a contrast with the poignancy and sheer seriousness of the preludes. It’s a fair bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg of Guo’s emerging talent.