Fans of deep, female led, space-y, blissed out drone-pop - artists like Grouper, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Pocahaunted, even Zola Jesus - rejoice: Julia Holter's Tragedy is a staggeringly good debut (Holter has put out a handful of small releases but this is her first proper album), an album that's noisy and dreamy, rich in resplendent drone, with a sonic palette that runs the gamut from abstract, avant-garde noise and gothic atmospherics, to reverb soaked ghostliness and almost pop-y hooks, pulling in elements of woodsy folk and psychedelia along the way. Oh, and it's based on Hippolytus by Euripides. Despite some similarities, Holter's compositional range is actually broader than a lot of her contemporaries. I love the work of Liz Harris and Rachel Evans as much as the next guy but each of their individual albums has a distinct, fairly fixed sound to it. This isn't a bad thing - especially when that sound is often so good to begin with - but in some ways Tragedy is more engaging from start to finish for its broader scope and greater complexity.
While Evans' work is often fairly cosmic in a sort of minimal, skeletally framed kind of way and Harris' is drowning in reverb, an impossibly deep and distant and melancholy sound, Holter's work here is often far darker, almost doom-y, and generally more complicated, shifting and overlapping compositional styles with ease. It makes sense that an album based on a Greek tragedy - one that even draws lyrical content from the text of that tragedy - would be dark. But Holter moves beyond the staid and formalized tone of her source material to create something big and unnerving and powerful, an emotional work that knows when to pull back and never goes too heavy on the pathos or melodrama but can still move and surprise and unsettle a listener.
Tragedy is hard to classify or pin down. Consider the opening track. It begins with an insectoid buzz. There's a distant fog horn shrouded in sonic mist and intermittent blasts from what sounds like a bass saxophone. Then an old opera record kicks in, rife with static and wear, old-timey strings rise and fall when suddenly you become aware of Holter's humming rising up through the mix, slicing through layers of fragile static pulse. It's surprising and strange and compelling, a clashing tapestry of sound and a telling sign of what's to come. Throughout, vocals switch from straight up pop vocalization to choral chants with layered vocals a la Julianna Barwick, to vocodored, cyborgish passages of disjointed narrative and are sometimes all three at once in an overlapping polyphony. Many of the pieces consist mainly of winding, slowly building instrumentals. The crackling of old phonographs or disintegrating tapes whisper under discordant, jarring piano, woozy, atonal strings, humming synthesizers and organ, eerie, gaseous decay, skittering, jangling percussion, garbled field recordings, blasts of lowing brass. There's melodies here and even hooks but when they appear they are often deeply buried or come gusting up out of turbulent audio collages and fractured drones and pulsing harmonics. Tragedy is definitely an accomplished piece of work. As I slowly compile my "Best Albums of 2011" this blog, I'm having a hard time imagining a list without this one on it.
(if you want to buy this on vinyl, act fast.
The first edition sold out quickly
and the second one is equally limited)
Tune in soon for posts featuring Roll the Dice, Danny Paul Grody, Nate Wooley, Catherine Christer Hennix, and Hollow Press' favorite albums of 2011 (possibly including a mixtape or two for the uninitiated and/or curious).