There are two words that are bound to pop up again and again when anyone discusses Julia Holter’s new album Aviary - “ambitious”, and “immersive”.
The LA artist’s fifth studio outing arrives as a gargantuan 90-minute sprawl, stretching across 15 tracks, most of which clock in at over six minutes. And it’s not just the length of this thing that is massive, but in sound as well. Holter has crafted one of the most sonically immersive (there we go) albums of the year, a maximalist masterpiece of layered instrumentation, immense orchestration and intricate composition. There is no bigger sound in pop music than the swirling wall of freely-improvised acoustic instruments, strings, flutes, cymbals, you name it, that is the stunning album opener Turn The Light On.
This is an album that would be termed “challenging” if it didn’t simply sound so drop-dead gorgeous. It would be “demanding” if not for the fact that it’s such a pleasure to listen to.
There are fewer “songs” here that are likely to stick with you on first listen than on her previous accomplishment Have You In My Wilderness. What there is instead are multitudes of layered exotic soundscapes, off-kilter percussion, free-form improvisation, bizarre futuristic vocals, and cascades of strings. Don’t see “soundscapes” and think your usual heavy-browed attempts by pop artists at ambience and drone. These are soundscapes as in real, tangible, carefully crafted worlds within themselves. In the composer’s own words, these are “sounds to get lost in”.
In the middle of the current art-pop boom, Holter has come out with an album that draws as much from Claude Debussy as it does from Kate Bush.
I mean that in a very literal way - many passages here are classical Impressionism. It’s rare for a “pop” artist to use classical orchestration so successfully as the base of the music itself and not just as an adornment. Take Colligere, or Chaitius, which, with its idyllic orchestral arrangement, could be mistaken as a Debussy-influenced composition from any decade since the 1890’s. That is, until Holter’s unsettling android voice comes in startlingly loud, repeatedly intoning the word “Joy” like a brainwashing command. The past meets the future.
This is the space the album exists in - the meeting point of the ageless, dreamy natural world, the rich acoustic arrangements, with the uncertainty of the future, an unfamiliar technological world that Holter embodies in her alien vocals and synthesizers. The natural and technological blend perfectly - is that a harp in Another Dream that breaks up until it’s a glitching synth sound? A visual representation of this album could be the greatest sci-fi film of the decade, equal parts utopia and dystopia, beautiful and unsettling. Aviary is the ultimate modern album for 2018’s climate of uncertainty.
On that point, could there be a more fitting title than Aviary? It both perfectly captures the fluttering, swirling sonic characteristics of the album and describes an environment that appears lush, beautiful and natural, yet within the sinister context of captivity.
Everyday Is An Emergency, title considered, is a truly unsettling piece, with a multitude of instruments playing single discordant notes over and over to create a siren that sounds like it’ll never stop. But stop it does, to give way to an even more terrifying section - soft piano and muffled ghostly vocals. “Chanting/in the metal/in the distance/in the burning/in the turning/in the sounding” goes the trance-like ghostly lullaby, getting scarier as the wailing strings build up behind it.
Indeed, Holter’s vocals couldn’t be more perfectly utilised on the album. She jumps between multiple languages (including healthy amounts of Latin), works around repeated slowly-evolving phrases and words, and sometimes operates purely phonetically, with English-speakers only catching a clear line every now and then. In other words, her voice is yet another instrument of mystery in the mysterious fantasy world of the album, and operates as just that - an instrument, a sound.
All the murkiness of the vocals makes the opening of seventh track I Shall Love 2 particularly striking, as Holter’s voice enters loudly, clearly and calmly on top of a minimal drum machine - “I am in love/what can I do?” It’s the first memorable and clear line on the album. She knows when it’s time to be direct, and the album’s most approachable song is cuttingly direct - “That is all/there is nothing else/who cares what people say?”
Amidst instrumentals of such grand scope, it’s incredibly affecting to hear Holter suddenly appear alone at her piano in In Gardens’ Muteness, singing to just one special person. “Lover”, she repeats in a mournful croon, lost in echo. “Now the ship is gone/Lover, who will know you?” It’s the jaw-dropping emotional moment, two thirds of the way in.
Even across a 90-minute album, Holter shows great command of the art of pacing. The punchy syncopated percussion of the art-pop powerhouse Underneath The Moon (the most delicious bit of production this year?) make a perfect change from the more ambience-centric tracks around it. Halfway through the second disc, just as things are beginning to drag with I Would Rather See and the opening of Les Jeaux To You, the latter is transformed into the album’s most upbeat cut, with a bouncy drum-kit making an unexpected entrance. The vocals finally step out of the fog of contemplation and into the sunlight with a fantastic Kate Bush-like exaggerated characterisation. A touch of fun perhaps.
There are a few duller vocal tracks towards the end, the aforementioned I Would Rather See and Words I Heard, but at worst they can just be zoned out and slotted into the atmospheric background.
The penultimate I Shall Love 1 displays a carnal wall of stomping drone-folk instrumentation, earthier and more immediate than much of the album (big Natural Snow Buildings vibes here.) Ritualistic vocals chant the title like a mantra, as though Holter is convincing herself. It’s the big ending statement, before Why Sad Song brings the project to a close with sparse plinking piano, as though playing sadly in the aftermath while the rest of the the instruments are packing up.
Every part of Aviary bears the marks of masterful intent and execution. When played loudly on headphones, the way I believe the album is best suited to be heard, it’s possible to achieve a suspension of belief almost like a film, so visually and tangibly suggestive are these layers of sound. Many would term this album “ambitious”, but to me it seems more like Julia Holter very reasonably, and disarmingly comfortably, unleashing the full extent of what she is capable of.
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Released: 26 Oct 2018