Most of our readers have heard Sarah Neufeld before, without knowing her name. In the last decade, she’s played violin on numerous albums, most famously as part of Arcade Fire but most memorably as part of Bell Orchestre. She’s contributed to releases by The Luyas and Esmerine, and is a significant part of Esmerine’s upcoming Dalmak. Hero Brother offers the opportunity to hear her on her own, and listening illuminates the extent to which her contributions have been integral to the success of other bands. Her name deserves to be front-and-center, and this album confirms every good thought we’ve had about her talent.
Hero Brother doesn’t sound like a solo album. On the title track, Neufeld stomps on the floor and makes it sound like a drum. She occasionally sings wordlessly, like a Cocteau Twin escaped from the roost. Nils Frahm provides mixing and contributes harmonium (“Breathing Black Ground”) and piano (“Forcelessness”). But this is Neufeld’s album through and through, a diverse collection that ranges in mood from thoughtful and sedate to raucous and wild. The shifts in tempo and timbre provide great variety; some songs concentrate on the melodic, some on the harmonic and some on the experimental, while many offer blends of all three. The recording locations, which include a parking garage and an abandoned geodesic dome, add resonance: a whirr here, a wind there. There’s always something going on just below the surface.
It’s no surprise that the title track is also the preview track. At 124 b.p.m., it’s fast enough to dance to, and boasts a memorable chorus. There’s no overstating the importance of such a trait. How often do we hear someone say, “I can’t get that song out of my head?” and ask, “What song?”, only to be greeted by the flummoxed, “I don’t know, it’s an instrumental!” Prepare for an ear worm. The even faster “Sprinter Fire” provides an additional burst of excitement later in the album. But some of the most effective moments are also some of the quietest: the downcast opening of “Dirt”, as emotional as a graveside eulogy; the plucked “They Live On”, which makes the violin sound like a ukulele; and the closer, “Below”, which uses silence as a counterpart. This is the sound of a performer on top of her game; those who didn’t know Neufeld’s name before will likely learn it now. (Richard Allen)