Saturday, 3 November 2012

Album Reviews (Bat For Lashes, The Album Leaf and Chelsea Wolfe)

Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man

Natasha Khan has completed her glorious trilogy (following the Mercury Prize nominated Fur And Gold and Two Suns) with The Haunted Man - a more stripped down collection of songs than previous albums. Khan continues to juxtapose the intimate with the distant, drawing the listener in with personal stories and themes, and pushing them away with metaphor and wandering obscurity. The magnificent centrepiece is undoubtedly Laura (co-written with Justin Parker - a fellow Ivor Novello award winner for Lana Del Rey's Video Games); this is a stirring operatic ballad of moving beauty, gaining power and meaning on every repeat listen. The vocal production allows Khan's voice to soar with raw emotion. Equally effective is the dreamy electronic-infused Marilyn, complete with odd robotic chipmunk interlude, and second single All Your Gold is a great combination of 'old' and 'new', from uncluttered tribal opening, and borrowing heavily from Daniel, to the orchestral beats ending. While The Haunted Man is very much a solo record, Khan has gathered a swathe of talent - including producers David Kosten (Faultlines) and Dan Carey (who has worked with everyone from The Kills to Hot Chip), and drummer Rob Ellis. Bringing these musicians into her world, while keeping her vision, is the greatest success of The Haunted Man. The ideas and personnel flow on the title track - the only time The Haunted Man veers into prog-rock waters, only to weather the storm and rise triumphantly through the waves as Khan leads the choral ending. This is the end of a beautiful trilogy.
-- CS

Forward/Return by The Album Leaf

The Album Leaf, the brainchild of Jimmy LaValle, first rose to prominence in 2004 with the release of In A Safe Place - recorded with the help of Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Forward/Return (released as an EP - in spite of its 35 minute running time) is a welcome return after 2010's A Chorus Of Storytellers. Opener Stretched Home is a gorgeous blend of lazy drums, horns and delicate synths while Descent brings a more electronic produced sound. The Album Leaf always play like Mogwai in their more erudite, composed moods; like their Scottish contemporaries, crafting a complex layered composition around a central idea. Low Down brings in another great brass section - not raspy but polished and smooth, and Skylines is simply beautiful, with its stark spiky percussion and gliding strings - a subtle piano melody emerging from the depths. Under The Night, the only song on Forward/Return with vocals, is a prosaic low point which could be much better with the absence of words. That said, it builds to a satisfying, if repetitive climax. Images is a slightly chaotic, unfocused penultimate four minutes while closer Dark Becomes Light is exactly this - bleak droning 8-bit beats through the first three to four minutes to break through at the four minute point into glorious hope-filled rays to complete the transformation. Another wonderful record from a true pioneer of electronic post-rock.
-- CS

Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs by Chelsea Wolfe

Three albums in three years for Sacramento's Chelsea Wolfe has brought the gothic singer-songwriter from the ghostly, challenging (try Deep Talks), religious-imagery of The Grime And The Glow to the more impressive Apokalypsis. Now we arrive at Unknown Rooms. As the subtitle suggests this is an album of more organic, guitar and vocal based, folk songs from the singer's unreleased archives - with the Wolfe twist. But this is far removed from the usual dark melancholia and harsh musical arrangements. Lightness is everywhere. The delicate seduction of opener Flatlands comes alive in the second half for a wonderful string-laden finale, while Appalachia has a hardened-edged determination - sharp guitars and howling strings, while Wolfe is superb. The Way We Used To and Hyper Oz are a curious menagerie of vocal arrangements, the former with added military drums, the latter with spooky strings and vocals, while Spinning Centers is a simple guitar/vocal combination; all softness and light touch. Likewise, Our Work Was Good is very reminiscent of PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, with better execution. There are scattered moments of darkness: I Died With You is a short ghostly interlude before the sparse, fragmented and haunting Boyfriend (a cover by Karlos Rene Ayala and Ben Chisholm - who plays with Wolfe on the album). This is a weird, yet wonderful, addition which descends into sinister buzzing synths. Closer Sunstorm is a real surprise, a piano-led vocal duel between two halves of the same consciousness. The two bonus songs, new original compositions, are a great addition: Virginia Woolf Underwater is mesmerisingly great, as are Wolfe's vocals on Gold. Unknown Rooms is unlikely to propel Chelsea Wolfe into the big time but this is certainly her most accessible and consistent album. Ironic then that it is filled with songs that have taken this long to come (in)to light.

-- CS

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