Solifuge is a sweet surprise, a debut album that seems to emerge out of nowhere and makes an instant impact. During its live debut at a sunset concert in Joshua Tree, California, Less Bells (Julia Carpenter and friends) was paired with a stop-motion film, an instinctive match as the band’s music shares an elongated character. Some of Carpenter’s compositions were “inspired by August monsoons rolling in over the mountains, others by clear, starry nights,” and they sound just like that description: languid and lovely. If the work of Richard Skelton comes to mind, it’s because the two share a similar approach, repurposing strings through soft electronic settings. We were confused by the title, as a solifuge is a sun spider, until we learned the portmanteau: solitude and refuge. While we can imagine sun spiders in the Joshua Tree National Park, we like this definition better.
Violin, cello, voice and synth are the primary instruments, the synth often used as bass. And while there may be less bells, the word refers to fewer rather than without, because there are bells here. And that’s a good thing, because we like bells, specifically warm, pointillist chime tones. There’s also a slight nod, perhaps unintentional, to the 5th Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer,” which shares the album’s often melancholy tone. A specific three-note motif, prominent in “Milwaukee Protocol,” is the echo of Carpenter’s voice in the opening track, unifying the album as it returns to its point of origin.
“Desert” is a particularly emotional composition, featuring some of the album’s most overt melodies. In spirit and execution, it recalls Peter Gabriel’s work on Passion. When the cello recedes, the listener is left with a great feeling of emptiness, an even greater contrast when compared to the ending of the prior piece. There’s great beauty here, and vastness, but something is missing: a loved one, a sense of belonging, a way of life. The back-to-back titles “Valentine” and “Bombardment” add credence to this theory.
Midway through the album, a switch is clicked. There’s even a moment when one can hear it happen (00:50 of “Golden Storm”), although the effects take a while to seep in. From this point forward, the album becomes less soothing and more unnerving, even experimenting with light atonalism. Perhaps the sun spider is here after all. The aforementioned “Milwaukee Protocol” bears the weight not only of this shift, but of the return, like a person wandering deep into the desert on a spirit walk and returning with altered perceptions. It’s a brave move, but earned on the first side of the LP; in fact, this is the sort of album that underlines the importance of vinyl, as the statement might otherwise be missed. The music sounds like truth unraveling and being reformed as a deeper truth: the same principle applied to the composition and one suspects, to the theme. At the end, we find that we have a new composer to champion. As demonstrated by her direct gaze, Carpenter has been honed by life and has emerged stronger as a result. (Richard Allen)