A wall is the antithesis of a waterfall. Right angles are unnatural, but they define our world. The enigmatic New York City tour guide Speed Levitch once said, “People do have a tendency to build walls in the face of boundlessness.” The wild, the great wide open, the truth; they are terrifying prospects for humans. Visions/Voices uses a waterfall framed inside a box to invite listeners along for a strange, discursive journey. Félicia Atkinson recorded these pieces in a private space likely made from walls, but the mercurial and erosive nature of water is an apt description for the music that emerged.
Behind the waterfall is a collection of tracks previously scattered between highly limited CD-Rs and cassetes over a three year period. It’s a soup containing evocative soundscapes, disembodied folk tunes, a lost lake, woodland dirges, and lonely towns on a windswept hillside. The mastering by James Plotkin helps to bind the myriad ideas together, but in truth Visions/Voices comes across like a series of short stories rather than a novel. While voice is not on every track, it ends up being the unifying thread.
Atkinson’s voice-in-the-haze gets her many Grouper comparisons, but her vocals appear under so many guises on this album it helps to distinguish her style. On “Badlands” the vocals sound like chants expressed with the final ounces of one’s lifeforce. At times the voices crack or rumble with gravel in the throat, as if the words were sung softly by a wolf in disguise. On “Infant Vampire” the vocals sound like the title, but expressed through a trumpet mouthpiece. Ghostly “oohs” join in while a squeezebox takes a terminal series of breaths. To say this album is a breath of fresh air would be incorrect as the fog and cobwebs are plentiful, but the voices and music are constantly breathing, making it uncomfortably human. The spooky lyrics on tracks like “Franny” and “Entomology” are also heavy on the hush, the words breathed as much as sung. Be careful not to mistake her for the forest ghost of Tori Amos!
Atkinson’s approach is very different from track to track. Celtic harp graces the intimate and haunted “Badlands”. “This Impermanent Gold” emits a defininite Grouper vibe. “Hooves Drummed” expands like Fabio Orsi or Tim Hecker. “Franny” mimics the dread of Demdike Stare. And it sure sounds like the Mars Volta used the same sound sample used in “The Owls.” With such non-linearity between songs, narrative stability is established within the context of the longer pieces. “The Owls” is a definite highlight at over 17 minutes, expressing a playfulness and sense of genuine wonder that is only hinted at on the other tracks.
While Visions/Voices does strike as a collection of songs, it is highly intriguing. The music echoes and drifts, yet it consistently feels close to the surface, as if our own skin were expressing itself. There is a distinct air of decomposition throughout, where death gives way to life. That rush of wet, black earth full of fungus. Breath is the most fundamental aspect of human nature, and this artist seems to be playing at its edge. In a sense, Atkinson’s songs are the dreams of the unrealized human, pawing at authenticity. It’s a message we ignore most of the time. Levitch poetically said small trees were planted in the shadows of skyscrapers, “to show us how much larger our illusions are than our true nature.” Visions/Voices is that little tree with so much to share if we only put an ear to it. (Nayt Keane)