New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: symphonic rock

Lavish, Imaginatively Arranged, Individualistic Ballads From Le Mirifique Orchestra

Le Mirifique Orchestra play lush, vast, majestically arranged ballads from the worlds of jazz standards, classic chanson and pop music. The arrangements on their new album Oh! My Love – streaming at Bandcamp – draw on classical styles from the baroque to the 21st century, emphasis on the modern. It’s an absolutely unique, imaginative sound, with jazz solos, classical lustre and catchy, relatively short songs. The group like playful instrumental intros, and have six strong singers taking turns out front.

The orchestra open the record with calmly spacious minimalism and then make their way into the first song, Skylark, sung with soaring, vintage soul-infused hopefulness by Agathe Peyrat. With orchestration that spans the sonic spectrum, from Thomas Saulet’s flute and Nicolas Fargeix’s clarinet down to Jérémie Dufort’s tuba, the song sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Co-leader Alban Darche’s judicious sax flurries over Alexis Thérain’s bittersweet guitar chords introduce Don’t Explain, then back away for Alice Lewis’ similarly pensive vocals. The swirl of the reeds against the resonance of trumpeter Rodolph Puechbroussous and horn players Pierre-Yves Le Masne and Emmanuel Bénèche maintain an uneasy dichotomy over drummer Meivelyan Jacquot’s muted sway.

Chloé Cailleton moves to the mic for the wistful You Can Never Hold Back Spring, the orchestra shifting between terse lustre and bubbling optimism. After a coyly shapeshifting intro, crooner Loïs Le Van takes over the lead on Parce que je t’aime, the ensemble moving from a subtle fugue to bright pageantry and back.

After a suspensefully flurrying guitar-and-drums interlude, the strings of Le Quatuor Psophos add lushness to the moody, often rather troubled instrumental Answer Me. Darche opens Je crois entendre with a balmy solo, then Philippe Katerine offers a gentle vocal over a contrastingly brooding, tense backdrop.

The string quartet return for My Love, foreshadowing the album’s title track with disquieting close harmonies and dynamic shifts. Cailleton takes over vocals again in a hazily brassy take of I’ll Be Seeing You, the high reeds rising to a balletesque peak.

Lewis goes back to the mic with a moody understatement for the haunting Celian’s Complaint, guest trumpeter Geoffroy Tamisier winding it up with a desolate solo: it’s the high point of the album. The similarly somber, mysterious narrative Et pour autant qu’il m’en souvienne makes a good segue, Le Van’s sober spoken word set to spare, possibly improvised verses before the angst-fueled chorus kicks in. Thomas de Pourquery sings the title cut to close the album on a pensively pillowy note.

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

Artfully Orchestrated, Gorgeously Angst-Fueled Tunesmithing From Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding

Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding play an achingly lush, angst-ridden brand of chamber pop that looks back to 50s lounge music but isn’t cheesy. Brian Carpenter‘s most noirish adventures, Ward White‘s work with Joe McGinty, and Jon DeRosa at his most orchestral are good points of comparison. Dawson’s latest album Last Flight Out is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the slow, undulating title track, awash in strings far more stark than syrupy. Dawson sings in an uneasy, somewhat gritty tenor. Jason Adasiewicz’s rippling vibraphone enters over the lithe acoustic rhythm section of drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Jason Roebke ; the song could be about escaping an invasion, or a metaphor for a doomed relationship.

Despite the persistent extinction metaphors, there’s hope in Mastodon, a brokenhearted waltz, Rumback’s cymbal washes mingling with creepily fluttering strings and the echo of the vibes. Built around a simple, catchy string riff, However Long It Take has a steady clave beat and rousingly optimistic gospel harmonies.

The Monkey’s Mind Is on the Prowl has a cocooning, lullaby-esque atmosphere that hits a peak with a balletesque coda from the strings and then a long, hypnotic outro. The album’s starkest and best song is While We Were Staring Into Our Palms, a cautionary tale about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty:

It might have all gone differently
The chemistry failed
That tree just had to come down
Blind rage prevails
Oh say can you see?

It’s Not What You Think has a flinty, Sam Reider-esque folksiness, a wise admonition not to take things on face value. What a refreshingly original, smart, tastefully crafted album.

A.A. Williams Sings Gloomy Songs for a Gloomy Era

A.A. Williams plays slow, toweringly crescendoing, gothic-tinged art-rock with world-weary noir cabaret overtones. If you feel “alone with nothing at all,” as Williams intones at the end of the second track on her debut album Forever Blue – or as washed-out and pale as she characterizes herself later on the record – this is your jam.

The first song on the album -streaming at Bandcamp  – is All I Asked For Was It to End, an elegant, brooding, soul-tinged piano ballad slowly rising to an angst-fueled art-rock sweep with distantly searing slide guitar soaring overhead: “All I asked for was to end it all,” Williams quietly insists. It reminds of the quieter side of the Bright Smoke’s Mia Wilson.

Melt opens with a spare bass-and-vocal verse, then a skeletal waltz that follows a slow upward climb to majestic grandeur: “These choice will come back and I will go back into the night again,” Williams asserts. Dirt – an original, not the Iggy Pop classic – begins with hints of classic country and grows more envelopingly Lynchian. But at least there’s hope: “I never thought that I could hold on,” Williams muses through her wide-angle vibrato.

With her stark reverb-guitar intro, Fearless is another track that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bright Smoke catalog. Williams’ ominously overdubbed vocal harmonies and the unexpected descent into a death metal-tinged abyss provide a welcome, unexpected jolt.

Glimmer is a gloomy Britfolk-tinged waltz with smartly terse orchestration and the expected big crunchy crescendo. The album hits a hypnotically minimalistic interlude with Love and Pain, and then its most enigmatic track,Wait: basslines figure heavily in in both songs.

Williams closes the record with I’m Fine, a single bell tolling before the somber piano intro. It’s an apology for being depressed all the time. In the year of the lockdown, there’s no shame in that: it makes you one of the gang. Let’s just not let being depressed stop us from demanding our rights. No more lockdowns again, ever!

Smart, Poignant Songs and Disarmingly Shattering Vocals From Kari van der Kloot

Singer Kari van der Kloot’s new album The Architects is completely its own animal. The closest reference point is Jenifer Jackson‘s early zeros work: informed by jazz, with rock tunefulness, classical lustre, breathtakingly unselfconscious, crystalline vocals and disarmingly sharp lyrics.

The key to the record – streaming at Bandcamp – is Caution, Nathan Ellman-Bell’s subtle, quasi-martial drums behind Jamie Reynolds’ spare, brooding, chiming piano, violinist Lisanne Tremblay’s turbulent lines channeling the horror-stricken angst this country felt in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. “Walk slow with your eyes closed, how could I have known how much more we could fall down,” van der Kloot wonders, rising to a leaping vocalese solo. There are no words for moments like that.

The title track is a hopeful sequel, pondering the kind of world we might be able to build in the wake of such a tragedy: van der Kloot’s vocals over Reynolds’ purposeful piano bring to mind another brilliant, poltically aware jazz songwriter, Sara Serpa.

The opening track, What I’ll Find has both tenderness and wistful anticipation, a portrait of searching for home set to a moody clave jazz backdrop. The layers of vocals reflect van der Kloot’s background as a chorister; Tremblay’s jagged lines nail the song’s persistent restlessness.

Swimming is a pensively circling, metaphorically-charged tableau about being in over your head, with an edgy chordal solo from Reynolds. It May Not Always Be So is a setting of an E.E. Cummings (sorry, capitalizing proper nouns is done for a reason) poem, with starkly resonant violin.

Same Song, an insistent, steady portrait of frustration and breaking away which could work on many levels, has a wryly oscillating synth solo from Reynolds. The disquieting intro to Ask reflects the theme of a shy person trying to get up the courage to ask for more: it’s a brave, violin-fueled, jazz-oriented take on Dan Penta‘s comment that “I would have been greedy if I’d have known my size.”

Hide and Seek is a contemplation of one-sided relationships, whether romantically or otherwise, set to a sternly circular minor-key backdrop. Arguably the album’s most lushly bustling number, Careful Construction reflects the precarious situation anyone who managed to move to New York faced in the past decade, surrounded by forbidding speculator properties decimating practically every streetcorner; yet van der Kloot refuses to let all this rob her of being centered.

The album winds up with Holding Pattern, a tersely minimalistic, suspenseful portrait of a long-distance relationship that actually worked out well, based on the changes to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Yikes! A stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020, right up there with Aubrey Johnson‘s Unraveled.

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.

Solace and Inspiration From One of the World’s Greatest Musical Visionaries

Fear, fear drives the mills of modern man
Fear keeps us all in line
Fear of all those foreigners
Fear of all their crimes
Is this the life we really want?
It surely must be so
For this is a democracy and what we all say goes

In times of crisis, we turn to visionaries, because they see more clearly than we do. When Roger Waters put out his album Is This the Life We Really Want in 2017, he sure didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he had something important for us. While he doesn’t reference pandemics anywhere on the record, there’s never been a more appropriate time to to take an hour or so and absorb what he has to say than there is right now. It’s still streaming at youtube – with far fewer interruptions where you need to hit the mute button to kill the ads than there were when it first came out.

That cynical quote is from the title track. Once again, Waters – always a big-picture guy – gets it. We see all the President’s men in their surgical masks and we assume we have to be wearing them too – after all, those guys are all oligarchs, or wannabe oligarchs, and they look just like us! Or, they look like how they want us to look.

Beyond Waters’ own simple acoustic chords, there isn’t a lot of guitar on this album. That track, with its bell-like sonics and litany of people and faces – which bring 1983’s Every Stranger’s Eyes full circle – is the exception. Otherwise, it’s mostly strings and the former Pink Floyd bassist’s marvelously spacious, picturesque, gospel-inspired piano.

The album is symphonic to the nth degree, with several themes and variations. A ticking clock (or a bomb) that references Dark Side of the Moon is one of them. The melodies of a couple of iconic Floyd numbers from The Wall also figure into the equation. Lyrically, it’s as shattering, and insightful, and genuinely foundational as anything Waters ever wrote. In the years since, he has gone on to other equally important things – like advocating for Palestinian and Bolivian freedom fighters – but musically he’s as relevant as he’s ever been.

On one hand, Waters’ catalog reads like a doomsday book. Withering cynicism notwithstanding (and there’s A LOT of that here), his hope for a future based on compassion rather than greed remains unshakeable after all these years. At the end of the record, love conquers all: this apocalyptic news junkie gets off the screen.

But he reminds us never to forget past and present atrocities. Refugees on the run and and drone murders are recurrent themes: the bravery of being out of range tragically remains as much of a meme as it was when Waters put out his equally visionary Amused to Death album in 1992. Or for that matter, since long before Dark Side: “’Forward!’ He cried, from the rear, and the front rank died.”

Broken Bones, with its stately piano and grim strings, is one of the keys to this:

Though the slate was never wiped clean
We could have picked over them broken bones
We could have been free
But we chose to adhere to abundance
We chose the American Dream
And oh Mistress Liberty
How we abandoned thee
…Little babies mean us no harm
They have to be taught to despise us
To bulldoze our homes to the ground
To believe their fight is for liberty
To believe their God will keep them safe and sound
Safe and sound
Safe and sound
We cannot turn back the clock
Cannot go back in time
But we can say “fuck you,”
We will not listen to
Your bullshit and lies

Smell the Roses, another key track, sounds like Floyd’s Have a Cigar with good lyrics, calling bullshit on the military-industrial complex with characteristic down-to-earth elegance:

Wake up and smell the roses
Close your eyes and pray this wind won’t change
There’s nothing but screams in the field of dreams
Nothing but hope at the end of the road
Nothing but gold in the chimney smoke
…This is the room where they make the explosives
Where they put your name on the bomb
Here’s where they bury the buts and the ifs
And scratch out words like right and wrong

And there are a lot of really funny moments here. Trump gets snuffed out – or at least cut off mid-sentence, which for him is the same thing. Waters turns the “classic rock” radio staple Run Like Hell into a love song, which doesn’t come across quite as optimistically as that transformation might imply. And the reference to Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album is particularly spot-on. In a year where all the old paradigms are dying  faster than the abandoned patients in your average nursing home, this challenges us to reinvent ourselves. The alternative is in Waters’ narratives here, and in many grim songs from throughout his career. Is that the life we really want?

Defying Category With Svjetlana Bukvich’s Rich, Dramatic Compositions

As a composer, Svjetlana Bukvich has made a career out of jumping off cliffs and landing on her feet. Few other artists are able to bridge such a seemingly ridiculous number of styles without seeming the least bit out of place. Most, but not all, of her vibrant, dramatic, often darkly bristling compositions are electroacoustic, imbued with an irrepressible joie de vivre as wel as both a striking clarity and embrace of the absurd. It seems that she just writes what she wants to and lets everybody else figure out how to categorize it..or just leave it alone and enjoy its vitality. Her new album Extension – streaming at Spotify – is by turns surreal, futuristic, troubling and triumphant.

She plays zither harp through a maze of effects, joined by Susan Aquila on electric violin and David Rozenblatt on percussion, on the album’s opening track, The Beginning, flitting space junk and dancing, pingponging phrases over stygian washes. Bukvich builds the hypnotically circling prelude Utopia around a simple, insistent, wordless vocal riff spiced with her own bright electric piano, flickers from Jacqueline Kerrod’s electric harp over terse syncopation from bassist Patrick Derivaz and drummer Wylie Wirth. Is this art-rock? Indie classical? Does it matter?

Singers Kamala Sankaram and Samille Ganges harmonize uneasily over Bukvich’s dancing synth lines in the album’s title track: imagine an Ethiopian contingent passing through Jabba the Hut’s space lounge. Once You Are Not a Stranger is featured in three different versions throughout the album. Derivaz dips low to open the first one, string quartet Ethel building a pensive series of echo riffs overhead.

Janis Brenner sings a much more minimalist take of the second over the composer’s spacious piano chords. The lush final version, which concludes the album, switches out the string quartet for the Shattered Glass String Orchestra,

Graves, with Bukvich joined by Kerrod, Wirth, Nikola Radan on alto flute and Richard Viard on acoustic guitar comes across as a moody, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock dirge. Sankaram brings both gentle poignancy and operatic flair to Tattoo, backed by Bukvich’s brooding piano and orchestration.

The bandleader switches to synth, teaming up with cellist Raphael Saphra and bassist Joseph Brock for Stairs, a similarly uneasy miniature. Then Jane Manning trades off with Sankaram over Bojan Gorišek’s piano and Bukvich’s wry electronics in the Balkan-inflected Nema Te (You Aren’t Here, You Aren’t There). Fans of acts as diverse as Radiohead, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, exploding pianist Kathleen Supove and postminimalist composers like David Lang will love this stuff.

The New Women of Doom Compilation Salutes Females Playing Dark, Heavy Music

One of the most promising developments in heavy music over the last few years is the increasing prominence of women, and not just as lead vocalists. The new compilation lp Women of Doom – streaming at Desert Records’ Bandcamp page – celebrates that diversity with a lineup that transcends any kind of typecasting. While there’s first-class doom metal here, there’s also art-rock, postrock and cinematic tableaux.

Bassist High Priestess Nighthawk and her band Heavy Temple open the record with Astral Hand, which ends with a melodic series of screams. Getting there is just as much creepy fun, through tricky tempo shifts, hypnotic downtuned lows, Maiden-ish twin guitar riffage and allusions to Middle Eastern modes.

Year of the Cobra bassist Amy Tung Barrysmith takes a turn on keyboards in Broken, a horror-film theme with words. Swedish band Besvarjelsen skulk and gallop slowly through the stormy minor key intensity of A Curse to be Broken, frontwoman Lea Amling Alazam’s vocals half-buried in the mix.

Royal Thunder bassist Mlny Parsonz lends her luridly soulful voice to two tracks here. A Skeleton Is Born is a surreal, psychedelic mashup of oldtimey steel guitar blues, drifting spacerock and stadium bombast. She cuts loose even more on the album’s closing, minimalistic piano ballad Broke an Arrow.

Gwyn Strang’s ethereal vocals contrast with Sean Bilovecky’s hypnotic crunch in Marrow, by her band Frayle. New SubRosa spinoff the Otolith contribute Bone Dust, a wash of ominous violin and guitars hovering above a swaying Frankenstein pulse. Another SubRosa alum, guitarist Rebecca Vernon takes a turn on piano for A Shadow Covers Your Face, a moody, circling solo instrumental from her new project, the Keening.

Doomstress‘ Alexis Hollada contributes Facade, a similarly minimalist number that doesn’t bear much resemblance to her regular band’s relentless, chromatic assault. And Irish vocal powerhouse Lauren Gaynor belts out over an ornate, classically-tinged firestorm in Deathbell‘s Coldclaw.

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease over the horns and clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.