Reviews: classical

(neo-classical / ethereal / heavenly voices)

Sally Doherty & The Sumacs – Edge of Spring

My first acquintance with Sally Doherty was when she was a member of Sol Invictus. Later I discovered the solo oeuvre of this singer and musician from Sheffield. Edge of Spring is a lovingly assembled collection of songs from the last decade. It contains songs from five albums by Sally Doherty and her Sumacs, as well as two unreleased songs.

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Max Richter – Songs From Before

During the more restless autumn days there is one cd which brings me in a state of calmness: Songs From Before, the new ‘post-classical’ creation of Max Richter. Its delicate music is comparable to his previous album The Blue Notebooks (2004), though with slightly sparser compositions.
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Parca Pace – Raumspannung

Parce Pace is one of the manifestations of the the Crescens Collective, and in particular it’s a solo creation of Jan Carleklev. Just as I’m used to from related projects like Sanctum and Mago, Raumspannung is a very well produced album.
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Autunna et sa Rose – L’Art et la Mort

A lot of attention has been paid to the packaging of this record. The cd comes in a full color glossy booklet with extensive information on the music. Musically you could describe this release as chamber music or classic gothic inspired theatre music.

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A Challenge of Honour – Seven Samurai

It’s almost impossible to keep up with the production of A Challenge of Honour and related projects. This Dutch act around Peter Savelkoul keeps on releasing material. Often limited vinyls or cd-r’s on obscure labels. This is a regular cd though, on Divine Comedy Records. The first description that comes to mind when hearing Seven Samurai is ‘cinematic’, and that’s no wonder being a re-interpretation of the score to Akira Kurosawa’s classic film of the same title.

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Ashram – Shining silver skies

Ashram’s debut album was a nice piece of work, so I was pleased to hear that this Italian trio has delivered a follow-up. Like before, the core of the band is formed by three musicians: Luigi Rubino (piano), Sergio Panarella (vocals) and Alfredo Notarloberti (violin). They are joined by guest cellist Leonardo Massa. As you could expect from a line-up like this, the general sound of “Shining silver skies” can be described as neo-classical, with some folk/pop elements.

From the first tones on, the music of Ashram sounds moving and compelling. The light piano touches of Rubino, the emotional singing of Panarello (which may need some getting used to) and the colourful violin melodies of Notarloberti form a nice harmony, while the cello add a little solemn character. The album contains fourteen romantic compositions which are in general very lovely to listen to. They include some instrumental ballads like ‘Maria and the violin’s string’. My favourite piece is probably the classical hymn ‘Elizabeth’.

A few pieces, like ‘Lullaby’, are a bit too sentimental for me. Also I start to long for some rawer, less soft sounds towards the end of the album. But on “Shining silver skies” the musicians of Ashram certainly prove to be skilled musicians who are able to create some delicate music.

Clair Obscur – In out

Clair Obscur has always followed its own unconventional course. The French band was initiated in the wave/industrial scene of the early 80’s, but has never been limited to one distinct style. Especially their concerts have always been occasions for original stagings. Theatrical aspects also play a clear role on “In Out”, of which the music was composed for a performance at a festival.

The original LP was released around 1988, also with the famous Manet painting on the cover. There has been one previous cd reissue (Apocalyptic Vision, 1993), but this is long out of print, so this new cd on Infrastition is very welcome. On the eight tracks of “In Out”, Clair Obscur (founding members: singer Christophe Demarthe, Thierry Damerval on bass and guitarist Nicolas Demarthe) has been reinforced by a small chamber orchestra. Apart from own material, also texts from Robert Burns and Kafka are being used.

All this results in a melancholic classical sound, with theatrical vocals. First you might have to get used to the high falsetto voice on the opening track ‘Défini’. The best known track of the album is probably the moving ‘Blume’, which has been released by Clair Obscur in other versions before. Now and then the avantgarde wave origins of the band are clearer to be heard, like on the nervous ‘The last encounter’. There are also tranquil melancholic pieces, like the instrumental ‘Valse’.

“In Out” is a colourful short album, with nicely arranged classical compositions and an intimate atmosphere with a lot of feeling. The band seems to have been re-animated lately, so don’t hesitate when you have the chance of seeing Clair Obscur live.

Maja Elliott – 1000 Water Craters on the Sea

Maja Elliott is a pianist, singer and composer. She has been involved in numerous musical projects and styles, from classic to jazz, from folk to avantgarde. In recent years she often worked with Current 93, with whom she performed at various concerts and releases, most notably “Soft black stars” and ‘Hypnagogue”.

Maja has previously created a cd called “Arabica”, with an eclectic mixcture of Debussy, Coltrane and Irish/Hungarian folk. On “1000 Water Craters on the Sea” she follows an experimental ethereal/ambient approach. For this short cd she worked together with English drone musician Paul Bradley, as well as Aranos and Steve Stapleton. Apparently there is a cd-rom and a cd-r version of this mini cd. While I thought to have obtained the cd-r version, in fact it only contains an almost 12-minute .wav-track playable on my computer.

“1000 Water Craters on the Sea” starts with an ethereal vocal part, in which Maja’s whispery voice has been treated with echo to make it sound even more dreamy and angelic. It trancends into a tranquil, relaxing soundscape with soft drones, some microscopic percussive sounds and a general feeling of floating into a void. Halfway a piano melody takes over to give you a little more solid ground under your feet. Now and then the different layers in the music seem to build to a climax, untill they come to rest again. Towards the end more vocal elements are thrown into the careful composition, which ends in a mysterious manner. An special release which takes you on a magical journey…

Dark Sanctuary – Exaudi Vocem Meam I

An album filled with highly romantic neo-classical music. Dark Sanctuary treats us to very elegant compositions, lovely ethereal female vocals and an atmosphere instantly reminding you of impressive gothic cathedrals.

If I compare Exaudi Vocem Meam – Part I to the other album I known of Dark Sanctuary, Royaume Mélancolique, the band has grown considerably. But then again that album already dates from 1999, and the French band has released a few other albums in between. A good way to get familiar with their back catalogue is by listening to the compilation Thoughts: 9 years in the sanctuary on Projekt Records.

Dark Sanctuary started as a purely keyboard-based act, but in the course of time ‘real’ strings and percussion have been added, which gives their music more depth. The formula of this type of music is quite predictable, but Dark Sanctuary has released one of the better albums in the genre, with enough variation and moving moments.

A monumental hymn like ‘Elle et l’aube’ will appeal to fans of Stoa, while the slow and atmospheric ‘Dein kalter Stein’ makes me think of Lisa Gerrard, though the second half with the grave male vocals is more in a darkwave vein.

This is a recommended album for lovers of sacral, melancholic music. And the good news is that a sequel has been announced for 2006, as well as various concerts.

Ataraxia – Arcana Eco / Obscura 1

For many years Ataraxia is one of the best known neo-classical bands in the world. The Italian band has released many records on various labels. Ark records now released a cd and book, which can be seen as a tribute and celebration to the work of the band.
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Ataraxia / Autunna et sa Rose – Odos Eis Ouranon – La Via Verso il Cielo

This limited digipack contains two cd’s: one by Ataraxia and one by Autunna et sa Rose. Both bands have reinterpreted some of their tracks in an acoustic manner for this release. The occasion for this split release was a special live performance of the two Italian bands at the church of St. Michele in Rovigo.

The Ataraxia disc is entitled “Strange lights”. It contains a dozen of their songs, of which two were previously unreleased and two appeared on now deleted EP’s. All songs were rearranged using an antique piano. Furthermore you can hear classical guitar, flute and subtle percussions on these recordings and of course Francesca Niclo’s dominant and characteristic vocals, which will not be loved by everyone.
The songs really benefit from these acoustic and intimate setting, therefore this disc is not to be missed by Ataraxia fans. Highlights for me are ‘Bonthrop’ and the unreleased ‘Seas of the Moon’.

The second disc is filled in by Autunna et sa Rose, a band which I’m not too familiar with. They have reinterpreted songs from their first three albums mainly on piano and cello. Furthermore there are covers from Ataraxia (‘Canzona’) and Tuxedomoon (‘Egypt’). These recordings were made in the aforementioned church. The neo-classical music of Autunna et sa Rose is dramatic and melancholic. Especially the mournful cello dominates, together with the elegant soprano voice of Sonia Visentin. A few tracks like ‘Egypt’ are more piano-based, and on some songs (‘Temps Fumé) declamated male words are added.
This trio certainly knows how to play their instruments and the performance must have been lovely to experience in a church. For listening at home their classical music might be a little too minimal and a-melodic though. It would be bettery suited to accompany for instance an experimental theatre piece.

Terry Bozzio + Metropole Orkest – Chamber Works

‘Chamber Works’ is released on the Favored Nations label and features drummer Terry Bozzio and Holland’s classical Metropole Orkest. The combination of Bozzio and the Metropole Orkest may seem an unlikely one given Bozzio’s biography; he’s drummed behind guitar legends Frank Zappa and Jeff Beck, and has also kept the time for the Brecker Brothers and the UK’s Missing Persons.

After first listening to ‘Chamber Works’, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to listen to it again. But ever since the second listen or so, this CD has been strangely growing on me, and now it is sort of an addiction I have to the opening of the six movements, “Tremenos.”
Most of the material here first struck me as contrived and shallow, particularly the second of the works, “Hypnotic.” But there is a complexity here I didn’t at first realize. It is sort of scary when music infects you in this way. But, I’m still not so sure about some of the orchestration, which seems rather bland and typical in spots, and less than avant-garde as the album is billed. However, the orchestration certainly has its moments, there are times when it and Bozzio’s drumming reach ecstatic unison; “IBO” is an example of this.
While I have reservations about recommending these six works outright, I am wholeheartedly enjoying them as fantastic background music!

Amber Asylum – GardenOfLove AutonomySuite StillPoint

After a quartet of albums, numerous compilation appearances and collaborations with the likes of Neurosis and the Swans, Amber Asylum from the USA is back with a new, self-released record. The ten inch looks nice and contains three new tracks, with a total length of about 25 minutes.

The music of Amber Asylum is very hard to describe. At times they resemble a small chamber orchestra, while their music also has elements of dark rock, atmospheric ambient and apocalyptic folk, to name but a few. The line-up of the all-female band changes now and then, but the nucleus seems to be formed by Kris Force (violin, vocals) and Jackie Perez Gratz (cello). In total six different musicians are involved in this release.

I really like the heavy string sound they employ, with violin, viola and cello. At times the strings sound moving, in an ethereal neo-classical manner, but they are also used in a heavier manner, almost reminding me of Finland’s Apocalyptica. The female vocals are likewise varied. At times Kris Force, chief songwriter of the group, sings in a delicate, heavenly voices -style. On the other hand the vocals can also be a little sinister and intense, making me think of Jarboe.

The first track, ‘Garden of love’, is a very atmospheric one. Neo-classical string melodies are combined with filmic ambient structures and moving aria vocals. ‘Autonomy Suite’ has a very heavy sound coming close to rock or even metal, in which the dominant string parts make me want to play the air cello.
The B-side contains one long piece entitled ‘StillPoint’. This is a relaxing classical/ambient composition, which style reminds me of In the Nursery’s optical soundtracks or the more ethereal Projekt releases. Different vocal styles are nicely interwoven here. A lovely, moving song, which closes an impressive and varied release.

Shadowsphere, The – Through the field

The Shadowsphere is a young group from Finland, founded by Andy and William Klove. According to their biography they started as a ‘goth band’, but they ‘shortly noticed that one genre is too narrow a niche when it comes to expressing ourselves’, so they ‘moved on to wider fields’. Their self-released debut EP contains four tracks, including two versions of the title track.

The music can perhaps be described as a mixture of darkwave, neo-classical and medieval music. Though guitar, bass and piano is used, synthesizers play an important role in creating the melody lines. I read that The Shadowsphere now works with a flute and cello player as well. This is a good development, because the track on this EP (‘ The Guilt is with Him’) which uses a real cello directly stands out. ‘Through the field’ is also a pleasant song, through its baroque clavecimbel melody and grave vocals.

An obvious influence on the music seems to be Sopor Aeternus (‘Shadowsphere’ is also the title of a Sopor song). Furthermore I have to think of other neo-classical acts like Weltenbrand or Die Verbannten Kinder Eva’s. The Shadowsphere clearly shows potential on this release. The compositions may be quite simple and the sound somewhat too synthetic, the songs do convey a lot of atmosphere and the male vocals are convincing. We will hear more from them!

V/A – Fairy World II

Prikosnovénie seems to have made their various artists release Fairy World into a series, as they now released part two. Again you get a cd filled with music that shows the style of the label: fairy world music. For those who are not familiar with the sound it is world and folk music made with an open mind and various music influences but always with a fairy (tale) atmosphere.

Most of the label’s artists are of course present on this cd so it serves as a good introduction to new listeners. But, as the cd comes in a beautiful booklet and features some previously unreleased material also fans of the label will be pleased.

From the opening track by Pinknruby to the last tunes by Caprice, you are drawn into a dreamworld inhabited by unknown creatures and surreal landscapes. Even though the more rock orientated tracks by Collection D’Arnell Andrea and Misstrip are more down to earth, the overall atmosphere on the record is otherwordly.

Highlights are the fantasy world/folk tracks by Flëur and Ivo Sedlacek. But most of the featured musicians are worthwhile. Thus a very fine collection from a very nice label.

Last Fall, The – Unknown Treasures

The Last Fall is a project by Alain Posset from Belgium. I had almost forgotten about his existence, since his first self-produced cd “Flood in light” came out in 1999. But now The Last Fall is back with a new album. It contains almost 40 minutes of instrumental music mostly created with electronical means. The music verges on the border of ambient and neo-classical.

The atmosphere is very sad and gothic, with spherical keyboard layers, classical piano sounds, church bells and choirs. This may sound cliché, but the music is executed in a refined manner. My favourite track is perhaps ‘Flood in Light (Theme)’, a nicely flowing filmic piece.

Perhaps “Unknown Treasures” does not sound spectacular, but it will be appreciated by lovers of tranquil, melancholic soundscapes. It’s clearly made with a lot of dedication. Now the summer is almost over, this album is a suited companion for dark, lonely nights.

There is a limited box of “Unknown Treasures” available with the re-release of “Flood in light”.

Falling You – Touch

John Michael Zorko is either lazy or a perfectionist (or both), since the previous Falling You cd appeared in 1998. I go for the second option, since “Touch” sounds very refined and detailed. All songs on this album, which comes in a striking digipack, where composed by Zorko, who used both electronic and acoustic (piano, guitars) electronic elements to weave the most subtle ambient sound you can imagine, with a few more poppy excursions.

But don’t assume now that this is an instrumental album, since I haven’t told everything yet. “Touch” will be welcomed by all people who love to listen to heavenly female voices. No less than six female vocalists were employed to give their input (both vocals and lyrics) to the album. And not the least ones: think of Dru Allen (This Ascension), Aimee Page or Victoria Lloyd (Claire Voyant) for instance.

My favourite moments are the subtle ambient soundscapes like ‘Something about eve…’, on which Dru Allen uses her voice as an instrument, with lovely wordless chanting. The more melodic, poppy songs, like the triphoppy ‘The art of possession’, are less to my liking. The rather abstract atmospheric soundscapes appear to be alternated by the more song-based compositions. Some highlights are the melancholic ‘Moth and flame’, the mysterious ‘…a cry for the broken-hearted’ and the delicate ethereal ‘The canoe and the waterfall’.

The sound of this album is crystal clear, perhaps partly due to the mastering of ambient veteran Robert Rich. “Touch”, which is dedicated to Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and everyone “who has ever touched another in a healing or comforting manner”, is a very fine release for The Fossil Dungeon. It would have also fitted the Projekt catalogue very well. A moving release by Falling You.

Proscenium – Behind the curtain

Proscenium (a theatrical term) is the new project of Anders Calderon from Sweden, who used to work under the name of Mortaur. From that early incarnation I only heard the album “Horror Vacui”, which was available as a free download for a while and which displayed pretty solid dark ambient. Proscenium seems to lean more towards a neo-classical sound, though a dark ambient background is still present.

There are female choirs, synthetic strings, piano and other orchestral elements. The atmosphere is still pretty spooky, which is largely caused by the grim male voice whisper-declamating haunted tales. Torrents of torment, pain, wounds and fears are populating the lyrics.

The album has a modest length of 36 minutes. Enough to fill your room with a filmic sound, which could of course be the soundtrack of a dark medieval murder mystery or even sheer horror at times, something with evil monks and dusty castles. The label names Profane Grace, Each Dawn I Die and Arcana as some of the musical inspirations, as well as some classical composers. “Behind the curtain” is pleasantly dark and sounds quite convincing, though the vocals are a bit over-the-top perhaps.

Ghost Fish – S/T

Ghost Fish is a new project, which features Daemonia Nymphe, Louisa John-Krol, and Nikodemos Triaridis. This collection of fine musicians promises a lot. Also the beautiful artwork helps to raise the expectations.

When listening to this album you cannot escape to discover the variety in music and also some incoherence in the material presented. The electric guitar in some songs gives the music a touch of shoegazer, like in ‘Cigar Of The Red King’, ‘ D.D.L.M.’ and ‘Skin Meadon’.

These tracks are in contrast with the more ethereal pieces on the disc like ‘ A Candle In The Sea’, ‘Tangaroa’ and ‘Outside’. And, a more pop/rock like ‘Kik’ doesn’t really fit with none of these tracks.
The only true highlight on the album is’ ‘The Lonely King’ in which the spoken and whispered vocals work very well together with the violin and flute. This song is a marvelous piece of fairy music.

Overall the record is not hundred percent convincing. But, ‘The Lonely King’ and the ethereal songs make the album worthwhile for at least the fans of the label and these musicians.

V? li – Forlatt

The debut album of V? li, a one-man from hailing from Norway. About half an hour of moody, peaceful music between neo-classical and folk, almost completely based on acoustic guitar. The rather minimal, melodic instrumental songs are further coloured by classical instruments like cello, violin and flute. Some bands which come to mind are Empyrium and Tenhi.
V? li creates a romantic, melancholic atmosphere, steeped in folklore and tradition, which evoke images of ancient forests. It’s certainly nice intimate music which I enjoy listening, though a little more variation could make it better. The song ‘Lengsel’ is a good example: the additional female voice gives it just that little extra.