Sunday, September 13, 2015

album review: 'untold stories' by elvya

So I occasionally get requests to review albums, but I also occasionally get bands or new acts that will outright send over their new records for me to cover. And for the most part, I try to get a chance to listen through all of it, but between my existing backlog and all the preparation I do for listening to more established artists, I just run out of time to cover everything, even if I like what I see. Plus, considering I do a lot of lyrical analysis, it can be a little infuriating when there's no lyric sheet or additional details provided beyond just the songs, especially if the mixing is poor and the lyrics are unclear.

So when I got the email about Elvya, I wasn't initially planning to do much until I caught some choice details. Full name Elvya Dulcimer, her music was reportedly more in the vein of Celtic folk that was on the cinematic side with this being her debut... with narration from Arjen Lucassen, the mastermind behind Ayreon. And if I know anything about Arjen, even though he didn't produce this and I didn't precisely love The Gentle Storm that he did with Anneke Van Giersbergen earlier this year, he's got an eye for quality. On top of that, former Within Temptation and current Kingfisher Sky member Ivar De Graaf was handling guitars and drums, so I have every reason to believe this could be something special. So I decided to check out her debut Untold Stories: how is it?

Well, it wasn't what I expected, that's for damn sure. Folks, without a doubt this might be one of the oddest records I've covered this year, the sort of album that leaves me scrabbling for comparisons because it seems to inhabit its own unique ecosystem. The closest comparison I can make is somewhere between Vienna Teng and early Imogen Heap, a blend of spacious and gorgeously melodic folk peppered with the flutes you'd here on an early Ayreon album and even some rough-edged beats that wouldn't be out of place coming from Bjork. The best words to describe it would probably be fey or elven or otherworldly, but even on that level I'm still not certain it's adequate. As such, it's a tough album to evaluate, to the point where I'm certain that I like it and will recommend it, it's hard to gauge how much.

So the best place to start would be the instrumentation and production, and right from Arjen Lucassen's hushed delivery and opening into a misty, chimes accented intro with the throat singing swell beneath it, it's clear we're getting material that's drenched in the iconography of Celtic folk with a certain cinematic swell that definitely can be linked back to Howard Shore's score for Lord of the Rings. And while I do feel the percussion and drums are a bit sparse for my preference - I tend to prefer Rohan and Gondor over Rivendell and Lothlorien anyway - there is a certain pristine, almost operatic power to Elvya's vocals and the clarion call of the tin whistle against the plucked Celtic harp. And sure, I prefer my folk with a little more ragged and with a bit more of an edge, I can appreciate the pure beauty of tracks like these... and then about four tracks in, we get the faintest hint of a static-touched beat to supplement the melody, which despite the strings seems more brittle and crystalline. And at first I thought it was a flaw in the recording quality, but after the tinkling, strings-heavy track 'Remember', it seemed to return against the pianos of 'Try To Listen', this time slightly more distant in a track that reminded me a ton of 'Memories' by Within Temptation. And after another tinkling interlude, it came back in force, the pianos sounding lo-fi as the choppy stutter of broken effects almost reflect something more industrial, with even the reverb around Elvya's vocals feeling more harshly mechanical. And then without warning, they seem to fade away, as both 'Daddy' and 'Ann'Vatu' use more acoustic guitar, strings, and organic instrumentation, with only synthetic hints fluttering around the background. And in the latter case, the mix seem to go for outright cinematic swell with the male backing vocals, crystal clear plucked guitar and gentle accordion before the full strings arrangement comes in. It's strikes me as a weird inclusion, and if it didn't fit incredibly well with the instrumentation in a folktronica sort of way, it would definitely feel out of place on an otherwise fairly organic record - even though, yes, it's not as textured as I'd usually prefer.

And that is a choice which did confuse me, because for as much as this album floats in ethereal tones and it goes part of the way with some of the rougher woodwinds and strings, it never really develops a significant foundation in the low end in terms of groove to support those crystal clear melodies, and it can make this album feel colder than I think was intended. It doesn't help matters that it feels pretty thin for a debut: of thirteen tracks, two are the intro and outro, three are instrumental interludes, and three aren't even in English - we'll come back to this. And considering how fleeting that electronic piece is, it feels like some of the ideas could have been expanded upon to match and support the extremely strong clarion tones that Elvya brings to the table. I'll definitely give her this, she can sing, and the multi-tracking proves excellent to match that cinematic or symphonic vibe - but on some tracks the instrumentation just doesn't do enough to really support her, electronic or otherwise.

Now this takes us to the lyrics, and remember how I said that three songs weren't in English? Yeah, they aren't in any language you'll recognize, fantasy or otherwise. Turns out Elvya created her own language - and helpfully provided a translation in the liner notes - that sounds somewhere between Italian, Latin, and Dutch but really is its own entity. I'm of two minds about this: on the one hand, it's an awfully convenient way to write songs without having to construct conventional poetry, but on the other hand, it does flow well, has marginally consistent syntax, and it's not like Tolkien didn't do it. And on the topic of Lord of the Rings, it's stark how much Elvya draws from similar themes especially about environmentalism, at least on the surface. The album is titled Untold Stories, and it becomes clear that the fantasy realm that Elvya creates has some pretty potent, real-life undertones, particularly surrounding the systemic neglect of mother nature. And yet there are other songs where you can tell there was more of a personal narrative, like the attempt at a gentle breakup on 'Lavor Mi Gente', the toxic situation of 'Leave Me', and most straightforwardly, the complicated pleas of 'Daddy', which really is an awkward word to anchor this sort of music, it sounds too informal. And to some extent this album descends into abstraction very quickly, as Elvya has said many of the songs are inspired by dreams - and I completely buy that, because some of these tracks don't make a lot of sense outside of dream logic. 'Remember' is probably the most glaring case, because I think it's representative of a break-up utilizing death as metaphor, and it fits the surprisingly intimate feel of some of the writing.

But here's my frustration: this is an album that from Elvya's delivery to the instrumentation is capable of huge emotions, and when it focuses on the more starkly defined environmental themes like on 'Nature' and 'Gover Si Vena' and 'Try To Listen' and 'Ann'Vatu', it works incredibly well - it's talking about our relationship with the world around us, it should sound big. But I'm left wondering how much these songs are trying to tell more of the personal narrative hidden behind abstraction or whether they are about those larger-than-life concepts. What I'm trying to say is that the writing can feel unclear and vague, and when the music can hit with such impact, not even having broad clarity can be a real setback, especially when the writing on this album is as thin as it is.

Now I may sound like I've been really hard on this album... but the truth is that I really did find Untold Stories to be something incredibly special and defiantly unique, with a gift for melody and atmosphere that I haven't heard since other incredibly unique cases like Algiers blending gospel with post-punk or Casualties of Cool combining country with progressive ambience. And in this case, this album definitely has niche appeal - I made comparisons to Vienna Teng and Imogen Heap, but probably a better comparison is a more fey Lindsey Stirling. I just wish the atmosphere was a little more grounded or had some tighter grooves or the writing told more stories, but I'm not going to deny there's a singular talent and unique voice to this record. For me, it's an 8/10 and a recommendation - but again, I get it if this isn't your thing. I've been a fantasy nerd for fifteen years and I own swords, this stuff resonates with me on a primal level... but I reckon if you give this a chance and try to listen, it might just click with you too.

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