The term earwitness was coined by Murray Schaffer to signify “one who testifies or can testify to what he or she has heard.” Seoul’s Joyul uses her debut album to do the same. While the album has lyrics, one would be hard-pressed to call it a vocal set. The artist often takes a back seat to field recordings and instruments, integrating her own voice to the extent that it becomes just another texture, content to nestle in its own sonic space. Even on the cover, she crouches in a glade, as if to emphasize that the trees are more important; she is part of the environment, humble yet integral.
The album seems to begin underwater, with gurgling and flow. The title “A Stage” implies all the world’s a stage, establishing the theme. Rhythms start and stop; pots and pans are rattled; Joyul asks, “Have you ever been …” and cuts off. The artist is fully present yet purposely submerged. A construction vehicle backs up, sounding its warning, but she’s already moved to safety. From this perch she begins to sing, surrounded by birds. That’s where the similarity of “Marginalia” to Snow White ends; the tone is more akin to Cocteau Twins. Later (on the digital release only), Lucy Liyou will offer an echoey remix, with one set of vocals pushed further into the background and another forward, while Ulla will tackle “A Stage,” heightening its percussion and bass and truncating its whisper.
For club sensibilities, the instrumental “Damn That Dream” is the go-to track. The head-nodding beat is enhanced by non-linear synths, water percussion and growing density. “Chant” surprises without words, allowing the repeating rhythms to be the chant. The brief, harsh ending topples into “Mirror Ash,” populated by beeps and beats, trills and hums. These tracks lie at the album’s center and represent the temporary victory of industry over nature, machine over human. Then Joyul reemerges, multi-tracking her voice into whisper, speech and song, a choir of impressions counterbalanced by atonal piano. When Joyul finally sings directly, it is after she has let every other element have its say; she’s listened before speaking, bearing earwitness.
From this point, Joyul may head in one of two directions, or both. Her voice is expressive enough for a vocal album, yet her sound is distinctive enough for an instrumental work. This is a strong, multi-market debut; the sky is the limit for this talented composer. (Richard Allen)