Julia Holter – Aviary review

Secret Meeting score: 70

by Dave Bertram

Los Angeles-based avant-garde composer/songwriter, Julia Holter, launched herself into many an album-of-the-year list in 2015, with her imaginative yet easily accessible Have You in My Wilderness. Awash with simplistic melody and more focused arrangements, it marked a significant step away from her previous three records where a heavy musical backdrop slowly unpacked hefty, overarching concepts that were, at times, rather impenetrable.

Returning three years later with her fifth full-length, Aviary, Holter has jumped back, head first, into that place. Rather than building on her shift towards an odd yet innovative take on sunshine, melancholic pop, she’s delivered a behemoth of a record that’s bustling with complex, haunting musical arrangements, rather startling turns, vocal mantras and a plethora of ideas and instrumentation.

Clocking in at 90 minutes, it’s an epic journey through what Holter describes as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world.” She explains the album seeks to reflect this feeling and how one responds to it as a person, through how they behave in their search for love and solace – “Maybe it’s a matter of listening to and gathering the seeming madness, of forming something out of it and envisioning a future.”

Quite. From the volley of marching strings, booming cymbals and uninhibited vocals that embody the opening track, Turn The Light On, through to the plucked bass and isolated sounds that evoke an old, isolated mill on album closer, Why Sad Song, the record offers the listener no respite in an ambitious tapestry of music that is both brilliant and mystifying at the same time.

Previously released tracks I Shall Love 2 –  a maelstrom of rain-drop drums, strings and thick bass over a half-spoken vocal – and Words I Heard – a landscape of swirling fog which Holter glides through, nodding to Dante and Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan for lyrical inspiration – bring a slice of structure to proceedings. But embedded in the maze of Aviary, these highlights morph into the assault of sounds that surrounds them.

Eight-minute Chaitus builds on a bed of woodwind and softly wailed vocals to create something that resembles the sound of a Tudor dinner party, while Underneath the Moon sees Holter at perhaps her most experimental, marrying a host of synths and off-kilter vocals into an arrangement which recalls Kate Bush. Everyday is an Emergency is a pipe-led improvisation that wouldn’t go amiss in a Stanley Kubrick film, where Les Jeux To You morphs into a frenzied mixture of jabbered voices and urgent keys.

I feel like a broken record when saying that in an age of no-risk, pop regurgitation, it’s always refreshing to see somebody simply act on instinct and deliver a piece of work as genuine, complex and intricate as this. There’s little common ground across the record – it dashes from different pillar to different post at a frightening pace and while it is clearly a real artistic accomplishment, it leans heavily on the impenetrable side. Those looking to purchase off the back of her last record should tread cautiously- a totally different beast lies here.

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