Likened to Joni Mitchell and Sinead O’Connor, Scottish singer-songwriter Amy Duncan’s fourth studio album Cycles Of Life offered great things on the surface, and followed some decent acclaim and a strong niche of followers for her previous efforts. But, 11 tracks later, it is difficult to locate where these comparisons came from, and even harder to shift that feeling of being rather underwhelmed.
Duncan sets an initially dark tone in opening number Cycle Of Life, which disguises deeper sentiments about mortality with cathartic string arrangements. For an opening track it is rather weak, and leaves little to be desired for the rest of the album.
Cutting beneath the, otherwise, bland surface, Song For Myself evokes the interesting idea of how she will be there at her own death, a strange brutality of fact which is captured with striking veracity. Sadly the production does not do justice to Duncan’s fragile vocals. The overlaying of her voice, rather than reinforcing its interesting quality, instead makes the higher notes sound slightly awkward and grating; a real shame considering pleasant instrumental accompaniment, which injects much needed animation into Duncan’s songs.
This musicianship is shown off well in the Viking-like battle drums of When The Dead Are Watching. Tasteful additions from harpist Fiona Rutherford, plus percussion and strings, really stand out on this track and in Crack In The World. Ivory Tower revives Duncan’s folky, pseudo-Celtic roots, infusing dark and aggressive pulsating guitar rhythms, which oddly evoke some of Ben Howard’s darker numbers, but perhaps with less artful tact.
From this promising dynamism, the album unfortunately slips further into monotony. Not much can be said for Wild Animals or This Fleeting Moment, which struggle, respectively, to surpass a myriad of relatively mediocre melodic passages and generic vocal deliveries. The latter is even a little bizarre, incorporating some kind of drum and bass-esque rhythm, almost in desperation to capture attention. This Fleeting Moment sadly does what it says and passes right by us, offering another standard pleasant instrumentation, but again seeming quite unable to transcend over the line of mediocrity.
Thankfully, Navigating makes amends; Duncan was spot on her with the choice of this as her single. The mélange of spiraling riffs on the harp and crisp looping guitars rejuvenates the otherwise hard, stiff and at times colourless tracks. Running Boy confirms that Duncan is truly at her best when going back to her classical background, giving us our first sense of being truly haunted by her choral, fragile voice.
Duncan’s voice is certainly divisive; one is left wondering if her fragility is to be appreciated or deplored. Her strongest vocal is on Your Very Soul, where she complements the richer tones of the piano and humming quality of the cello. This track offers much awaited depth to her repertoire, and is somewhat resonant of pop-till-you-drop artist Leddra Chapman.
Overall, though trying to purport itself as having ‘folk roots’, this amalgamation of songs might better be described as watered-down-folk, meets Delta Goodrem in a studio, wearing a Beth Orton dress-up costume. Some tracks will no doubt appeal to those with an insatiable appetite for acoustic female singer-songwriters, but might serve to disappoint those seeking a fresh contribution to the girl-with-guitar genre.