The recent expansive folly of Sufjan Stevens on The Age of Adz gives little hint of the nature of releases on his Asthmatic Kitty label. This latest release from vocalist Julianna Barwick has a timeless feeling to it, perhaps by virtue of being as in thrall to medieval choral music as it is to modern electronics and home studio recording techniques (it was recorded at Stevens’ personal studio). Whereas Stevens threw every conceivable piece of electronic trickery at the wall for ...Adz, Barwick focuses on the startlingly pure sound of her own layered, wordless voices, with haunting and impressive results.
There’s an inevitably hymnal, sacred quality to much of this music. It’s possible that Barwick might have been influenced as much by minimal, spiritually concerned contemporary composers such as Arvo Part as much as by the solipsistic vocal arrangements of, say, Bon Iver. The desire to move beyond language also has much in common with the ethereal, powerful music made by The Cocteau Twins. Comparisons may well also be made with Sigur Ros but, for the most part, The Magic Place lacks that band’s tendency towards portentous overstatement.
Barwick’s voice always occupies the foreground of the music, sometimes in glorious harmony, sometimes with compelling polyphonic dissonances. Perhaps the best example of her real skill in arranging comes with Keep Up The Good Work, where parts that initially seem in conflict with each other are carefully entwined. The dense reverb inevitably makes Barwick sounds ghostly and detached - but this is evidently the intended effect. Often it feels like Barwick’s multi-tracked voice is communicating from every possible dimension and more.
Barwick’s chief weapon would appear to be repetitive looping, hardly itself a particularly original gambit, but she uses it to create an illusion of complexity whilst keeping her music direct and resonant. She also makes intelligent use of pitch and range - shaping her phrases by using the extremes of her register. When instruments do join or take over (there is a piano coda to the majestic Flown), they occupy the same spare, reflective ground, with languid melodic lines, long held chords and acres of space.
Slightly unexpectedly, the penultimate track Prizewinning adds in a pulsating synthesiser line and the slightest suggestion of a beat, but even this tentative step towards minimal electronica fits with the album’s cohesive mood. Barwick has managed to find an open, broad sound that is at once ancient and modern.