Saturday, April 16, 2011

Phaedra - The Sea (2011) REVIEW

Norway has a long tradition of exceptional female singers and the last decade has shown the emergence of a new generation of Northern sirens, from brilliant and melancholic soft folk singer/songwriter Ane Brun to indie pop minimalist Silje Nes through toyish jazzy excellence Hanne Hukkelberg or high priestess/poetess Jenny Hval, and of course the Queen of them all Susanna K. Wallumrød aka Susanna, with or without The Magical Orchestra. Phaedra aka Ingvild Langgård can be undoubtedly added to this incredible list, and surely not at the bottom of it.

In Greek mythology, Phaedra (Phaidra) is the daughter of Minos (king of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa) and Pasiphaë (daughter of Helios, the Sun), wife of Theseus (founder-king of Athens) and the mother of Demophon of Athens and Acamas. Phaedra's name derives from the Greek word φαιδρός (phaidros), which means "bright", she is sometimes compared to the Sun. In some versions of the mythology, Phaedra committed suicide out of guilt linked to her love for her stepson Hippolytus and the terrible consequences of her feelings towards him. Phaedra's myth has been the source of inspiration for dozens of writers, the most famous being Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca and French dramatist Jean Racine. Besides the obvious mystery and beauty the name Phaedra evokes, Ingvild Langgård by choosing that pseudonym is carrying a monument of, indeed, mythological proportion on her frail shoulders and she's somewhere doomed to create more extra-ordinary things than most other common mortals. Has she succeeded to fulfill the near divine promises such a name demands? Follow me further.

Ingvild Langgård is a former student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, she has worked with a number of media over the years, from films and photography to art installations and vocal works. Phaedra's debut album "The Sea" is the first in a song cycle trilogy of "fragments of homegrown mythology, physical and spiritual metamorphosis, death, the other side and losing your soul". Ingvild Langgård not only composed and wrote the eight songs on the album, she also played most of the instruments, including acoustic guitar, piano, zither, harmonium, Fender Rhodes, mbira (a thumb piano), synth, glockenspiel and chimes, did all string arrangements and co-produced the record with Frode Jacobsen (ex-bassist from Norwegian extremely popular band Madrugada). She is of course surrounded by some other musicians throughout the album, most notably percussion, violins, violas and doublebass.

The music is a blend of dream folk, wooden instruments, psychedelia, medieval hymns and reversed singing, among other things. The lyrics focuse on stories of honeydewed autumns, blackwinged animals, the darkest of hours and of course the sea (1). Just like Wire Magazine pointed it out, "The frequent downfall of traditional music is that the emphasis falls on the tradition and not on the music. The quest for authenticity can produce music as flat, fake and pointless as painting-by-numbers." (2) The recent album "Last" by English folk luminaries The Unthanks represents a particularly successful example of musicians focusing first and foremost on the music, Phaedra's "The Sea" is definitely another one.

You already guessed it, the star of the album is Langgård's exquisite voice, dreamy and ethereal, at time broken, almost blues-like, with wonderful evocative power. Her voice is at the same time little mannered, very articulate, almost polite, and virtuosic, that voice is also extremely rich in range and tones. Despite the relative coldness of this music, we are in Norway after all, Langgård's voice is affectingly human and soulful, something she shares with most of Norwegian female vocalists, contrary to many of their Swedish colleagues.

While this album could appear rather bare, if not stripped-down and even straightforward, there are no obvious change of tone or rhythm or mood throughout each song, at closer listen the richness and complexity of the melodies, arrangement and orchestration reveal themselves. Each song has been carefully and intricately layered and assembled to form soundscapes of larger-than-life grandeur while keeping a very natural fluidity. Very often, these songs reminds me of the sea indeed, the waves coming and going indefinitely, giving rise to a similar fascination.

The first three songs on the album, "Death Will Come", "Honeydewed Autumn" and "The First To Die" could be considered as one long suite, they are the most folkish of the bunch, and also the most emotional and affecting. Phaedra is really touching heaven with these ones, or she has been touched by some god (Phaedra is a demigoddess in the Greek mythology, well), to put it simply, my eyes got wet and I could barely breathe. Saying that those songs are breathtaking is an understatement. Beauty at that level of beauty (sic) is an enchantment and it's almost painful. Even if the bliss is absurdly intense, the fourth track "Oserian" comes as a relief after such overwhelming emotion to enter the world of dream. The most experimental song on the album, Phaedra is getting pretty close to the high priestess of doom Nico. While listening to that track it's hard to tell which instruments are played in reverse and which are not, but the most unearthly sound comes once again from Langgård's vocals, they're cut up and like paste at random like bit of tapes stuck here then there but I couldn't know if her voice has been reversed or if she's just singing unintelligible words or both. It doesn't matter, but the effect is astounding. "Black Dog" and "Sister" approach blues and Americana but as a Scandinavian variation of them. "Black Dog" also recalls Nick Drake's "Black Eyed Dog" for the title and for the guitar chords and tones. "Sister" is maybe the most 'normal' song on the album with verses and a discernible refrain, maybe because it is performed in a less ethereal, more down-to-earth way. Langgård's voice is also getting lower and here I could finally remember who her phrasing and intonation reminds me of, and beware of that reference : Mark Lanegan, surely on his masterpiece "Whiskey for the Holy Ghost" in 1994, even her guitar sound recalls that album. Now if this is a conscious or unconscious influence, well, who knows? Finally, the two last songs "The Darkest Hour" and the album title "The Sea" are somewhat a little alien on that album, the apparent simplicity is gone for a far more obviously layered and studio produced delivery, Langgård being slightly drowned in the mix of the former song, which spoils part of the emotion. The song "The Sea" was clearly targeted as the album near operatic coda, it's also the longest and it works intermittently.

As a whole, this album is extremely focused and coherent, each song possessing its own strong atmosphere and character while serving as an inherent chapter of the entire songbook. This is a timeless album, almost liturgical at time, always blissful, an album that could have been produced by Joe Boyd, the man responsible for the beautiful recordings by Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan but also Nico's "Desertshore", which was co-produced by John Cale. The shadows of both men were apparently wandering around the studio when Phaedra recorded "The Sea".

I haven't been that moved, inside out and upside down, by an album since "Flower of Evil", the ultimate masterpiece in my book by Susanna in 2008 on that same Rune Grammofon. I will wait for Volume 2 of Phaedra's trilogy with intense impatience. Do I have to conclude by saying that the answer to the above question is a definite yes? Well, I just did.

Stream this jewel below or better, spooking buy this!
Watch the live video for the song "Sister" and "Black Dog" further below.

8.5 out of 10


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