The first thing people will ask upon hearing this album is, “Where’s the violin?” Trust us, it’s there. But Hugh Marsh has spent decades defying expectations, and he’s not about to change now ~ especially because it’s been a decade since his last album, and he’d prefer a triumphant return. So let’s list a few of his associates and projects before scrapping the comparisons. He’s played with Loreena McKennitt, Peter Murphy and the Barenaked Ladies, and contributed to the soundtracks of Armageddon and Shrek 2. In 2007, one of his albums was nominated for a Juno Award in the Contemporary Jazz category.
Take a moment to imagine what his music might sound like today. Then click the player below.
Were you right?
“I Laid Down in the Snow” was first featured in our Winter Music Preview, then spent a month on our Recommendations page. It’s a perfect track for winter, with static like snow and distortions like drifts. But what about that foreground instrument? Is this a cornet? It sounds like a cornet, but we’re going to have to go with violin, even though our ears scream that we’re wrong. One thing we agree on: the track sounds mournful. “I Laid Down in the Snow” was in fact composed after the dissolution of a relationship and a stranding in a foreign city. That sadness will be magnified months later when the composer’s mother passes away, reflected in the album’s closer, “She Will.” This piece sounds more hopeful ~ as befits a closing track. Layers and effect pedals are not enough to obscure the clarity of Marsh’s violin as he performs this tender elegy.
Now we’ve read the beginning and skipped to the end. There’s no Armageddon here, no Barenaked Ladies. But there’s also little connection to jazz. For that one will need to travel to the meaty middle, which in contrast to the opener and closer might be defined ~ with admiration ~ as deeply weird. The composer travels far afield, touching upon multiple genres. Bracketed by a pair of losses, one might interpret these wanderings as the product of a mind attempting to return home, like lost Alice. “Miku Murmuration” contains voices like those of the Lollypop Kids, something one would never encounter on a Loreena McKennitt album. Their tone is playful, like Minions. The chances that anyone saw this coming: zero. Flavors of improvised jazz surface at the tail end of the subsequent piece, a reminder of the artist’s former life. “The Rain Gambler” is decorated with electronic bursts like exploding stars. And all the while, the notes wobble like thoughts dislodged from their moorings: a mind in crisis.
Despite these tonal disruptions, the pieces flirt with light. When the voices return in “Da Solo Non Solitario in WV178,” they sound more like Jóhann Jóhannsson’s digitizations than the exclamations of Miku, the Japanese hologram star: still childlike, but calmer, more reflective. “A Beautiful Mistake” is unhinged, at times dissonant, marked by metallic feedback and rubber percussion. Marsh’s joy in noise continues through the tabla-esque “Across the Aether,” but halfway through one can hear the violin slipping in, insisting on clarity. By the end, the artist returns to where he began, mourning leading to mourning, ending on a different note. Like Alice, Marsh is changed by his experiences: knocked off-kilter, landing wiser. (Richard Allen)