The word ethereal is often used to describe all manner of music with female vocals, but once upon a time, it was a genre unto itself, straddling the boundaries of classical, gothic, folk and pop. The C’est la Mort and Hyperium labels carried the banner, sharing artists ranging from Anchorage and Stoa to the more heavily vocal Chandeen and Collection D’Arnell Andrea. While these labels represented the underground, the highly recognizable 4AD brought the music to a larger public, most notably with Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil; stateside fans found their fix in Sam Rosenfeld’s Projekt label. But as the 80s began to dissipate, so did the talent pool. The genre’s influences were incorporated into other new genres, ranging from trip-hop to Prikosnovenie’s “fairy world”; the power of the original music was lost. As pianos were replaced by keyboards and strings by synthesized orchestras, fans turned away. While a few bands from that time are still going, or have recently been reformed, the majority have retired to relative obscurity. But what if they had kept going, evolving with the tumbling decades?
The World Without Us may refer to a world without this brand of music, or simply the world without Glissando; it’s been a long four years since the duo’s last release. But in the interim, the duo has been busy. Richard Knox’s Gizeh label has been responsible for some of the best albums of the past couple years, including the still-stunning Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite by FareWell Poetry, itself a new take on the older genre of post-rock; and The Rustle of the Stars, Knox’s glistening conceptual project with Frederic D. Oberland. And something has happened to Elly May Irving’s voice,; her range and control have vastly improved since With Our Arms Wide Open We March Toward the Burning Sea, to the point that her performance seems almost operatic; and her piano playing remains exquisite. Add the contributions of the usual collaborators, many of whom also share time in FareWell Poetry – Oberland, Angela Chan, Tim Hay – and the presence of new friends including Lidwine (vocals and harp), Aaron Martin (cello, bowed banjo, bowl) and Nils Frahm (mastering), and one feels a sense of excitement; if these performers, each accomplished in their own right, can operate as a team, this project will be a success. They can, they do, and it is. Credit goes to the leadership of Knox and Irving and the contagious, collaborative spirit of the collective. At no time does the album seem like the work of a single performer, or even a subset of the larger group; each individual performance is integrated in the service of the whole.
It’s important to note that the album is not a throwback recording, but a resurrection of a genre for a new era. Organic instruments, electronics, field recordings and voice are blended in a thoroughly modern fashion, producing a sonic hybrid. Instrumental overture “Still (I)” sets the pace, with the sounds of traffic and conversation giving way to strings and organ; the dramatic “The Long Lost” adds a pulse and a voice. November is the perfect time for the release, given the opening words: take my hand, I will walk with you through the snow. The album’s long instrumental delay (nearly 8 minutes before the first word is sung) is reminiscent of Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite; vocals may be integral to the project, but the power lies in the album’s composition. This fact is displayed in the last minute of “The Long Lost”, as the words recede and the strings advance to center stage.
While there’s nothing here like the epic, 14-minute “Floods”, the new album operates in a manner completely different from that of its predecessor. The tracks flow together beautifully in tone and key, enabling The World Without Us to be viewed as a single, 48-minute suite. The removal of any track would dilute the overall impact. Through moments of light distortion (“For the Light”) and clear melody (“Of Silence”), the center holds together. As the album draws to a close, it returns to the beginning: “Still (II)” repeats the themes of the overture with tweaks and enhancements. The listener and the band have wandered from the familiar and returned to it, altered.
If The World Without Us sparks a renaissance in the ethereal genre, we’ll be delighted. If not, it’s still a triumph for Knox and Irving. A world with them is better than a world without. (Richard Allen)
Release date: November 5