Monday, March 21, 2016

album review: 'all my demons greeting me as a friend' by aurora

You ever have those artists where you get a glimpse of the cover art and read up on the buzz or reviews and before you hear a second of their music, you immediately have an impression or expectation of what they're going to sound like?

Oh, don't act like I'm the only one here, or that it's not a human reaction, especially if the artist exists in modern pop music. Like it or not, unless you are on the avant-garde or the sort of artist who breaks genre with every album - and those artists do exist in pop music, let's be real here - most modern pop eventually falls along the line of a trend. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that - just because something is trendy doesn't automatically make it bad - but it can be predictable. And this is where as a music critic that can get complicated, as we're used to seeing trends come in and out and we're not always grabbed by the presumption of 'novelty'. So when I hear buzz suggesting a new mainstream-accessible artist is 'changing the sound' or is 'so revolutionary', I'm quick to be skeptical because I've seen and heard this before, more than ever in the age of the Internet. But the key thing to note is that audiences, particularly younger audiences, don't always have the frame of reference - and that can be fine, if the audience is willing to trace the artistic lineage of the music. And what frustrates me is when that doesn't happen - when people praised Kanye as a revolutionary after Yeezus while dismissing Death Grips, for an easy example. 

My overall point is that when I first started hearing the buzz behind Aurora, a Norwegian pop singer-songwriter, I had the sinking feeling I knew what I was getting. Oh great, another vaguely foreign indie pop starlet who is just weird enough to appear outside the mainstream while fitting very much within it with subject matter that is 'so deep' but really never goes beyond pop platitudes, I think I've been down this road before. That said, Aurora didn't seem like the sort of studio creation disguising itself as indie pop that you occasionally see, and with the main writing credits on every song, she could very well be a distinctive voice, so I decided to take all of you up on the requests and dig into All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend by Aurora - what did I get?

You know, it's funny, throughout the first five or six listens through this album, I was immediately inclined to pitch this record in the same category that I've deposited so much modern indie pop - muted synths, monochromatic, percussion over melody, and far more bleak than it could believably pull off - in other words, over the past few years, I've seen this material before. And yet I'm inclined to be a bit charitable here, mostly because if you go deeper Aurora seems a bit more transgressive and self-aware than most of her peers, and she seems smart enough to frame her material as the darker melodrama that it is at its best. Now does that mean the record is good? Eh, that'd definitely debatable - while it has more good moments than bad, I'm doubtful its going to stick with me for long in the face of stronger pop competition like Foxes. But I do think Aurora is carving out a niche for herself - one that might not be unique in historical context, but does have its merits.

So let's start with the element that I definitely like the most about this record: Aurora's vocals. I won't say that she comes across as a real strident force behind the microphone, but there's enough of a folk-inspired, ethereal lilt to keep me interested and the fact that she often chooses some interesting vocal progressions is probably the biggest factor to keeping this record interesting. What I liked more were the vocal arrangements - and really, if we're looking for what anchors the majority of the melody this album has, it'd come here. Songs like 'Home' or 'Through The Eyes Of A Child' would not work without good harmonies, and the majority of the swell that tracks like 'Warrior' or 'Under The Water' comes here. Of course, 'Warrior' suffers the problem of a similar vocal line to what Kesha put out on a song with the same name in 2012, and I've got the same problem with both tracks that's a larger issue across this record: the warbling can get really grating, especially on hooks that are pretty bare-bones. I get trying to sound otherworldly, but really, it makes more of these choruses sound underwritten.

Then again, you could make that point about the majority of the production as well, easily the part of this album that works for me the least. And again, I get the appeal of this sound, and points are given to Aurora leaning into the dark, kind of creepy vibe that comes with the muted keyboards and brittle plucked strings and popping beats... but let's get real, there's nowhere near enough texture in any direction to really suck me in here, mostly courtesy of a selection of desaturated synths that don't remotely fit with the atmosphere. Take 'Running With The Wolves' - I like the breezier backing effects against the damp plucked progression, but when everything piles up for the chorus, it completely lacks the organic wild bite you'd need to make this sort of song believable. It does get a little better on the final two tracks, with 'Under The Water' getting some thunderous roil beneath it and with the shimmering cascades of chimes on 'Black Water Lilies', but there's very little distinctive instrumental melody to really support the vocals and stick in the brain in the same way. And this is a real consistent problem across the board on this album: yeah, the drums on 'Conqueror' or 'Warrior' have some punch and I liked the more frigid atmosphere on 'Winter Bird', but that instrumental melody is so perfunctory that I can't see either song sticking with me, especially when the atmosphere isn't anything than that a dozen other artists like Elvya or Chelsea Wolfe or even Christina Perri in this space could do with more texture or impact. And that's not even opening it up to when you have symphonic metal acts like Nightwish who have used this naturalistic sound with more diverse textures and instrumentation. The best song on this record by a mile is 'Murder Song (5,4,3,2,1)', a track about a mercy killing that is easily the darkest thing here, but also has the most prominent melodic hook - I might not have loved that clipped, buzzing synth that flooded through the chorus, but it at least managed to capture the unhinged vibe of the song and show what Aurora could do if she wanted to really get transgressive.

Now this takes us to the lyrics and themes... and really, I wish I could say that the writing was anywhere as dark or truly edgy as 'Murder Song', but the reality is that outside of some above average symbolism, a lot of this album falls into an odd grey zone for me. Clearly Aurora is going for a darker take on the self-actualized, coming out of depression story, and I'll give her points for avoiding the obvious and overdone self-esteem anthems that have become an unfortunate hallmark of this type of pop. Oh, they're still there, but Aurora's at least aware you have to go through the darkness to get to the dawn, and tracks like 'Lucky', the frigid and haunted 'Winter Bird', and especially the two ending tracks emphasize this. And it's telling how they are sequenced - one of the running themes seems to be Aurora returning to home, a womb-like environment where she could find sanctuary in childhood. Hell, it's one of the reasons 'Warrior' felt unconvincing as an anthem, because even though she's got the sword, she's still building the cage to hide in. But when we get to the end of this album, we see the turbulent seas and Aurora wondering why anyone would go into the murky blackness... only for her to do just that on the final song to come out reborn all the stronger. And sure, that's a decent arc, but it does feel scattershot across this album, and also features the worst song 'I Went Too Far', where self-awareness that her desperate clinginess probably drove this guy away doesn't redeem you when you end up chasing another soul to fill that hole. Yes, I get her intention was finding it in herself, but the words and delivery don't quite fill in that gap. And really, that vagueness is probably the writing's biggest weakness on this album - not even having much detail to inform much of the subtext, it leaves the album feeling underwritten and emptier than it really should.

And you know, to Aurora's credit if she is indeed writing about coming through depression into the light - as songs like 'Home' and 'Lucky' definitely imply - then I can see the parallels. But it comes through in patches in the instrumentation, production and writing, and certainly not enough to really stand out. The artist Aurora reminds me most of is Christina Perri, and while Aurora has more subtlety, she can't quite pull off the bombast in the same way, and either way, this record often can't support the drama or melodrama it approaches. Again, 'Murder Song' is a great track and it is just enough to pull this record to a very light 6/10 - along with the acknowledgement that if you're in the target audience you'll probably find more to like - but for me, it's a decent debut that needed more personality to really stick the landing. A decent and promising debut, but it definitely could have been better.

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