Posts Tagged ‘Clara Engel’

Cruel Nature Records – 2nd December 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

Seems I’ve blinked and missed a while slew of releases from Ontario experimentalist Clara Engel since writing about Hatching Under the Stars in the spring of 2020. Then again, the spring of 2020 doesn’t so much feel like a lifetime ago, as much as it does another life. Released on 5th April 2020, we were only just over a week into the first lockdown here in England, and we had no sense of what was to come.

As the blurb outlines, the album was ‘recorded entirely at home / solo’ and ‘Their Invisible Hands presents 13 tracks of subtle dream-like beauty… A mystical work, mixing classical and dark folk wanderings with misty soundscapes, which creates an abstract, new world atmosphere.’ Self-released in April digitally and on CD, Cruel Nature are giving it a cassette release.

In a way, returning to Clara’s work now is a powerful, and grounding experience. What has happened in the space between? Everything…and nothing. As they explain in the accompanying text, replicated on their Bandcamp, “I’m not writing the same song over and over so much as writing one long continuous song that will end when I die.”

If the last couple of years or so have reminded us of anything, it’s our mortality. And the sound of Their Invisible Hands is both spiritual and earthy. To unpack that, the sparse instrumentation, which consists predominantly of creening woodwind, chiming, picked strings, and hand percussion, has a simple, primitive aspect to it, and the slow, rhythmic undulations are attuned to elements of nature, as grounded as the act of breathing. ‘Dead Tree March’ is exemplary, a long, expansive drone that pulses in and out, repetitively, hypnotically, a sparse guide to a meditation.

Engel’s vocals, meanwhile, are ethereal and other-worldly, with a primal folk leaning that moves effortlessly between narrative and incantation, both of which tap into that subconscious part of the mind that it seems only music and nature can reach.

These themes of nature and of the ancient, of thoughts and tales lost in time, are constants in Engel’s work, giving credence to their comment about writing one long continuous song. In this context, it’s easy to see their entire catalogue as an interrogation and exploration of a quite specific field. Engel’s world is one full of magic and mystery, cryptids and magic beans and magnificent birds which sing. These songs are steeped in atmosphere and wonderment.

‘Ginko’s Blues’ is perhaps the most overtly classical piece on the album, a sparse composition led by picked acoustic guitar that calls to mind a stretched, dispersed rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, as it’s slowly dragged into a sea of scratched strings and gauze-like reverb.

Dissecting Their Invisible Hands too hard is to misunderstand its nature. It’s not an album to pick apart for the various elements, or even to comprehend its structures, origins, or meanings: any attempt to do so is to demystify its resonance. ‘It’s all fun and games ‘till somebody shows you their heart.. on a platter on a stake on a riverbed rusted…’ they sing on ‘High Alien Priest’. The metaphorical and the literal blur unsettlingly.

You shiver and find yourself mute as Engel leads you through an array of evocative soundscapes. All you can do is let go, and to explore them.

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5th April 2020

Christopher Nosnibor

Ontario-based singer, guitarist, songwriter, and visual artist Clara Engel has been keeping busy: Hatching Under the Stars is their thirtieth release, and follows just over a year on from Where a City Once Drowned – The Bethlehem Tapes Vol II.

Engel’s songwriting style is subtle and understated, but there’s detail in the arrangements, and they imbue each composition with undercurrents that belie the soft, smooth surfaces. Many of the songs on Hatching Under the Stars share a common theme that links in with the title, with oviparous creatures – mostly birds, as represented by ‘Oiseau Rebelle’ and ‘Old Feathered Devil’, but also the occasional reptile (‘Baby Alligator’) – dominating an album riven with wildlife, ranging from ‘Little Blue Fox’(foxes are notorious raiders of nests for eggs) and ‘Any Creature’.

The instrumentation is sparse across the album’s nine lengthy songs (most it between six and eight minutes in duration), placing Clara’s exquisite voice as the focal point, although there’s a delicate and wistful-sounding slide guitar break and the song builds in both volume and depth in the second half.

‘Oiseau Rebelle’ is slow and haunting, the elongated notes undulating approximating an otherworldly birdsong that sends a chill down the spine. Departing from the album’s overarching thematic, the acclaimed early Modernist artist Marc Chagall is the dedicatee of ‘Preserved in Ice’, a sedate, reflective piece built around a cyclical guitar motif augmented by woodwind.

‘Let me out of this cage,’ she pleads in a soft croon on the eight-and-three-quarter minute ‘Old Feathered Devil’. ‘Let me run around the growing lake / until the morning comes / and I’ll be on my way.” It sounds like a sly deception, somehow, and Engel’s lyrical mastery lies in their ability to slide into different personas. Deftly, and by stealth, they ‘become’.

The version of ‘Little Blue Fox’ here is a completely different recording from the ‘Little Blue Fox’ EP: over a minute longer, it’s slower by miles, and more ethereal, subtle harmonic notes peak above the rolling picked strings while distant beat rumbles almost subliminally in the background.

While Engel’s majestic vocal is the most captivating feature on the album, it’s the way they work it around the quietly hypnotic musical motifs that makes Hatching Under the Stars so special, and listening to the album and allowing it to flow through conjures a reconnection with nature. Listening now, locked down and closed in, recalling stumbling over a urban fox on my way to work early one morning less than a month ago, the creatures of the wild feel like another world.. but as Engel reminds us on the final song, ‘The Indifference of Fire’, ‘mystery will carry on without me’… and so does life. And through it all, nature always wins.

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Clara Engel’s 2017 album, Songs for Leonora Carrington rather impressed us here at Aural Aggravation. So we were pretty pleased to learn she has a new album almost ready. Entitled Where a CityONce Drowned, the album features six new songs, ‘with an instrumentation of voice, electric guitar, cello, guitalele, hammond organ, synthesizer, banjo, electric koto, bass, harmonium, and bowed glockenspiel’.

She says, ‘it is populated by dogs that race through the night sky, the Russian witch Baba Yaga, a meditation on deep time and climate change, wild goats, and a song that arose from looking at a book of Tarkovsky’s polaroids. These songs feel like a product of my time, and also reflect how out-of-step I often feel with my time.

‘I recorded the basis for the album in Bethlehem PA, in the final hours of December 4th, 2018, with Taylor Galassi accompanying me on cello. The last time Taylor and I worked together was in 2009, when we recorded The Bethelehem Tapes — also live-off-the-floor, in one sitting. It felt wonderful and seamless to work together again.’

She’s shared a taster here, and it’s beautiful:

…and we’re very much looking forward to hearing the whole album…. an when we do, you’ll be the first to know.

6th June 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

Mention Surrealism and the chances are Dali will be the first – and perhaps only – name mentioned by many. Breton, Ernst, Magritte may follow, but the chances are few would likely mention Beat luminary Brion Gysin, who was ejected from the Surrealists on the eve of a major exhibition. The fact of the matter is that Surrealism covers a broad territory, and is represented by myriad lesser known – although by no means lesser value – artists in all media. Leonara Carringon may be competitively obscure – as, indeed, are most women in Surrealism – but the English-born Mexican artist was both a painter, and novelist, who not only received an OBE but is also notable as being one of the last surviving members of the 1930s Surrealist movement, living until 2011.

This album (originally released by Wist Rec) is based on Carringon’s works, and the accompanying text quotes lines penned by Carringon: ‘Ice ages pass, and although the world is frozen over we suppose someday grass and flowers will grow again. In the meantime I keep a daily record on three wax tablets. After I die Anubeth’s werecubs will continue the document, till the planet is peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity, which deliberately renounced the Pneuma of the Goddess.’

Clara Engel, meanwhile, has built quite a body of work, and has also featured on a number of other works, including Aidan Baker’s Already Drowning in 2013. This is album is not overtly Surreal in its sound or delivery, but then again, it does forge an atmospheric depth that reaches into the subconscious and the further reaches of the listener’s psyche.

From the chiming minimal post-rock leanings of ‘Birdheaded Queen’ to the delicate, almost folky ‘Anubeth’s Song (Burn Eternally)’ (although it’s more the arboreal, ancient folk patina of latter-day Earth than anything most would recognise as ‘folk’), the album’s five compositions explore the spaces between the notes and use them to pull the listener in almost imperceptibly.

Soft piano notes and delicately-picked guitar are the primary instruments which provide the backdrop to strong imagery of animal devourment, transformation, and otherworldliness, not to mention infinite intangibles depicted in the most visually engaging of ways. Engel draws together a mesmerising, magical vocal style with compelling yet understated approach to arrangement and lyrical composition. Simple motifs and structures accrue power through repetition.

‘Microgods of the Subatomic Words’ is a splendorous work, brimming with rippling, shimmering electronic atmospherics over a solid but restrained rhythm. ‘The Ancestor’ is slow and sparse and ponderous: echo-laden guitar notes ring out into the thick air and hang, slowly resonating.

Engel’s voice conveys emotional depth, is rich and possesses an ethereal otherness, a kind of disembodied, abstract spirituality that’s haunting and deeply evocative. Exquisitely played and beautifully nuanced, it all combines to make for an album which is subtly strong.

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Clara Engel – Songs for Leonora Carrington