Female vocals can be layered and effected to create that 'choir' sound, but not everyone can pull it off. 2011 saw Julianna Barwick release the beautiful The Magic Place. She brought back the new age sounds and dream pop characteristics Enya and Cocteau Twins left behind. Julia Holter is somewhere between Cocteau Twins elegance and Gary Numans dark wave.
Is this avant-garde? Yes, to a certain extent. The vague instrumental characteristics are experimental to say the least. Song structures have been wiped away and replaced by sonic textures of industrial noise. I imagine 'War of The Worlds' mixed with 'Atlas Shrugged'. Drones are borderline ambient but at the same time industrial and ragged. The ethereal sounds are clearly heard and that's enforced by the sweet synthesizer drones mixed with her layered vocals. 'Introduction' opens with soundscapes and striking strings. The layered vocal harmonies sound like a siren and the following industrial screech also sounds like a piece of machinery gone wrong. The track then has a classical sample used as surrealism imagery, then income the haunting strings and aged instrumentation which sounds like something from the 1920's.
What shall I compare this to? Who shall I compare this to? Why am I comparing this? Does it need to be compared to anything to rectify strengths and weaknesses? Why am I still asking myself these questions when the answer is on the tip of my tongue?... Laurie Anderson. If you don't know who Laurie Anderson is, check out Big Science. This vague sound is again heard on the cataclysmic 'Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art'. It opens with empty soundscapes before the 'cutlary' and experimental beat kicks in. It follows the same pattern for about four minutes without any dynamical changes or anything remotely ear catching other than the synthesizer to the left and the unusual industrial rhythm. Everything is out in the open, but it's not fully there. It's a half full glass and it's lacking that extra bit of power.. This album is like the first layer of cloud which a plane goes through before the second elevated layer.. It's never quite complete is it?
'The Falling Age' opens with the same ambiance the previous track ended with. Julia sings clearly, sounding like the recent Cat's Eyes album. Her vocals build up as the synth enters into focus. Her high pitched vocals sound delicate but at the same time minimal. Beauty surrounds this track and it's very dream pop-esque. The hazy synth riff enters and the track is covered by a black cloud. It suddenly turns cold and time slows down. The ambiance and minimal horn section takes place here, to agonising effect. I want more but it enters and leaves almost instantly. It sounds glum but at the same time epic, I love the following strings which sound ethereal and dreamy. The track brightens up, with the darkness fading as higher pitches synths enter and the vocal layers return. It's a little roller coaster track and the average listener will not be able to pick Julia Holter from any of Brian Eno's works.
Try and imagine what Enya would sound like if she was German.. Do you have that sound in your ear? Now listen to 'Goddess Eyes'. This track is one of the shortest, thus it equals 'single' status right? Not exactly, but it is the most played Julia Holter track on last.fm. It has bewildering vocoder which is very Kraftwerk-esque. The synth riff and electronic drum beat only capitalise on that krautrock sound this track seems to have. It's like Tangerine Dream with Kraftwerk but with a female vocalist layering and using reverb to a comfortable extent.
The second half is much more relaxed and it smoothens out (much like the mid point of air travel). Nothing captures my ear specifically except a few unknown instrumental segments which I just cant match to anything. Don't get me wrong, this isn't just some experimental piece done by a music technology student. It's energetic and it's electronic to the point where ambiance and dream pop collide. That contemporary classical feel returns as images of Elder Scrolls come rushing back on 'Interlude' and 'Celebration'. Interlude is a two minute track which uses the organ sound well. It also has some strange singing saw type sounds among ringing bells and church-like (intended) atmosphere.
'Celebration' opens with a memorable string riff. It doesn't exactly expand on this riff, but the following classical arrangements follow the same riff and enter with more passion and composure over the lo-fi, rainy, sparse string riff. This lasts for about two minutes, then the track slowly turns Harry Patch and the out of tune instruments kick in to form a little warning or change over of some sort. Short vocal segments enter which sound increasingly strange and they're like something you would find a mental patient singing in a horror film. Piano enters as does layered vocals, a short three second break of silence occurs before the electronic drum beat and the vocals spread across the speakers. This is as close to 'full' as Julia Holter gets on Tragedy. She sounds like Kate Bush and the instrumental is certainly a 'winter' sound. This little explosion is very dreamy and the high pitch drone on the synthesizer is fantastic. Her vocals have been delayed and the beat plays between the left and right speaker like a table tennis match.
'So Lillies' is like the opening of a video game. Uncharted or Assassins Creed? I'm undecided yet, but the vocal sample mixed with the city soundscape creates this delicious urban atmosphere. three minutes later and we hear some of the best production of 2011. The vocal recording and effects have been thrown around and been delayed enough to create this blissful echo around the speaker system. The vocals are quiet but work with the rolling electronic beat which like the vocals, spread across the speakers. The track ends with a more vocal samples and a heavy synthesizer drone, it's a slow end to the track that started off so aimless, but turned into something memorable.
Why do final tracks always have to be uplifting? They seem to always leave the listener feeling at ease, as does 'Tragedy Finale'. It's what I expected, but it does have some standout progressions. The vocals are delicate but have a touch of freedom and peace within them. The darkness of the opening few tracks has left the area and the sun is shining. The birds are whistling and the wind is blowing. what we have here is the final puzzle piece, but it's found way too late. I wanted to complete the puzzle on track three or four, so I could enjoy it. Instead, I've found it right in the finale minute. It's the moment where clarity shoes through and emotions appear out of the shadows. The piano sounds extremely uplifting, as does the strings and the vocal segments which close the album. Julia then plays the 'fade out' card.
Julia Holter has the vagueness and same experimental characteristics as Arthur Russel, but she doesn't take charge of lead the way in innovation. This album is unusual, it's not amazing, but it's something peculiar which can only be enjoyed by a selective audience. My favourite tracks are 'Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art' and 'Celebration', they standout as the two that have a musical focus and strong structural textures. They're essentially the 'Wonderwall and 'Don't Look Back In Anger' of Tragedy.