March 5, 2012
Review: Julia Holter – ‘Ekstasis’
Julia Holter – Ekstasis
Despite springing from the same creative well as LA cohorts Nite Jewel and Ariel Pink, composer/performer Julia Holter has always been somewhat other. The lo-fi aesthetics that permeate her work to date have been more a burden of necessity than an artistic medium in themselves; Holter not allowing technological restrictions to hamper her creative energy, while simultaneously avoiding letting the compression and tape hiss define her sound. So unselfconscious in the delivery of her musical ideas is she, that Holter has even performed songs down a telephone line to Californian radio station KDVS, seeing no problem with squeezing her grandiose conceptual pop down the narrow wires.
A definition and re-definition of artistic identity — informed by both a classical and unorthodox musical education — led to last year’s sublime Tragedy: an ambitious album project loosely based on Euripides’ Hippolytos, but severely lacking in the pretence and posturing that that would suggest. Gently arranged field recordings and Holter’s detached vocals, reminiscent in tone and delivery to cult psychedelic folk singer Linda Perhacs, demonstrated a maturity of composition and pop sensibility far beyond her years.
Now comes Ekstasis, written over the last three years in tandem with its predecessor, but born from Tragedy’s lighter, more forgiving moments, and more perhaps in the mould of debut Eating The Stars. ‘Boy In The Moon’, its floating 8-minute centrepiece, is evidence of a clear intention to brighten the mood this time around, and its improvisational Casio meandering plays like a painstakingly composed ambient work of the highest order.
Poppier moments are never too far away with Holter, either. ‘Für Felix’ has a childlike quality, its vocal and melody evoking Nico’s seductive naivety, while ‘Marienbad’’s layered staccato and rolling Rhodes lines stick in the brain long into the haunting reverie of following track ‘Our Sorrows’.
‘Goddess Eyes II’, the sequel to one of Tragedy’s more memorable tunes, is a rhythmic and upbeat reimagining of its blueprint, the vocodered vocal phrase becoming an entrancing mantra long before the track’s conclusion, while ‘Four Gardens’ twists and turns from twinkling layers of Laurie Anderson-type synth to eastern harmonies over menacing beats. It’s a truly impressive work, as Holter performs vocal acrobatics while arranging scraps of musical ideas into fluctuating builds and drops along the way.
‘In The Same Room’, with its scrapbook-noir video that surfaced on the blogs a couple of weeks ago, is as straightforward a composition as Holter is ever likely to release; a pared-down drum machine supporting ‘conventional’ chord progressions and another of those childlike melodies.
Where Tragedy’s minimalist ambience is constructed in the ethereal vein of likeminded contemporaries such as Leyland James Kirby’s Caretaker project, Ekstasis examines its individual elements from a different angle, demonstrated most clearly on closing track ‘This Is Ekstasis’. Here, a cyclic bass figure supports bursts of saxophone and contrapuntal melodies, before the whole thing charges into a midway breakdown of spacious cello and vocals, an intermittent beat providing a structure that disorientates as it builds. It’s a challenging way to end an album, and one that bears rewards for those willing to buy into its lengthy ideals. It also serves as a perfect signing-off point for Holter’s last three years of explosive creativity: a culmination of the impressive development that runs through Tragedy and now Ekstasis, freeing her to explore still loftier climbs for her next project.
Read this review in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON