With Oratorio for the Underworld, Sophie Schell (PYUR) surpasses the high expectations created by 2016’s Epoch Sinus. Even more, she surpasses all expectations for an album, period. Listening again to her debut LP, one can hear the roots of what would eventually become trees, although no one could have predicted how tall they would grow, and how fast.
Subtext is the perfect label for this genre-bending artist. Alternating between hard beats and subtle percussion, Schnell creates layers of impact deeper than the craters of typical electronic music, binding clever effects and sub-rhythms in dust and stone. Preserving the best aspects of Epoch Sinus, PYUR now adds the talents of cellist Teresa Alvarez and violinist Juan Zalba Fuentes, widening an already rich palette.
Oratorio even has a theme, that of shamanistic storytelling: the tradition in which Schnell was raised. This upbringing is responsible in part for the otherworldly nature of her music. In “Deep City,” sound comes to a complete halt, like a passageway, before tendrils of strings waft through the consciousness. This produces a heightened sense of awareness, like one might feel around a fire after an evening of stories and smoke. Blurring lines between reality and fantasy, dream and waking life, Schnell invites listeners to delve into the collective unconscious to see what one might find.
But there’s another thread here, and PYUR is wise to introduce it early. This is, after all, a set to which one might dance if so inclined. “Flowers and Silvers” might be defined as “new industrial,” in that it contains the factory percussion of traditional industrialism, simultaneously muted and amplified, yet offered in an angular fashion. One is never sure from whence the beats shall come. Schnell’s abraded vocals are a pleasant surprise, as is ~ once again ~ a complete stop, this one followed by a trance-like infusion of voice and ritualistic beat. It’s as if time is flowing backwards from technology to tradition, the modern left to dehydrate in the sun as the ancient rises from the soot. These two threads continue to intertwine throughout the album, which incorporates references from nu skool breaks to IDM, while forging its own peculiar path.
While Schnell occasionally sings, her intention is not to deliver lyrics, but incantations. There’s no telling which ancient goddess might visit, but unlike other incantatory albums (as found in the dark ambient genre), Oratorio for the Underworld seems more concerned with the tale and the telling than with channeling or worship. Tracks such as “Delphos” are downright beautiful, characterized by an intense awe. It’s a rare treat to encounter dark music without dark intentions.
While the album is best enjoyed as a whole, “Rose Burn” is a standout, starting with an all-out stomp before turning its gaze to psychedelic abstraction, graced by a dusting of piano. Once again, the music stops in the center, relaunching with new unity, continuing to increase in energy until the end. The inter-rhythms are incredibly complex; Mentallo and the Fixer would be proud.
Interested parties should note that seven additional tracks are available only by purchasing the album on Bandcamp. As they are not found on the CD, they may be treated either as bonus tracks or as an EP, in the vein of Black to Comm’s Seven Horses for Seven Kings and Before After. These are no throwaway tracks; in fact, they are so good we encourage the label to release the CD as a double LP (in violet of course). If anything, the extra serving is even more thoughtful than the main disc, showcasing the work of Alvarez and Fuentes, building on the sonic architecture of “Solar Barque Blues.”
The solo cello that launches “Under Cavelights” is unlike anything heard on the “album proper” ~ a new timbre that considerably increases the range of dynamic contrast as well as the emotional depth. And when “Panorama” enters the electronic whirlwind, one imagines sparks caught in dust devils, a synesthetic wonder. These extra tracks are especially welcome because we didn’t want the album to end. This is the same feeling one notches when reading a beloved book, or sinking into the tale of a traveling orator. PYUR may have inherited the shamanistic skills of her parents, but the form of her divinations is entirely hers. (Richard Allen)