Album Reviews

Phaedra – The Sea

(Rune Grammofon) UK release date: 4 April 2011

The Sea is one of those rare debut albums that arrives with clear intent, sounding cohesive and complete. It is the work of Ingvild Langgard, a former student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, and it has that peculiar, paradoxical combination of ice and warmth so common to releases on the great Rune Grammofon label. Langgard appears to have dabbled in a variety of art forms and media before settling on music, which makes the intense focus of The Sea all the more surprising. Perhaps, however, her wide range of artistic experience simply enhances the strong sense of narrative at the heart of this music.

Comparisons with fellow Rune Grammofon artist Susanna seem inevitable. Both make music with a limited palette and a recognisable sound. Yet, whereas Susanna’s work has grown from close collaborations (particularly with her brother Christian Wallumrod), Langgard certainly feels more like an auteur, having composed and arranged the music here. She also played many of the instruments. The overall sound could loosely be described as folk – although Langard’s arrangements are liberated from tradition in many respects. Perhaps as a result, the songs sound at once ancient and modern. Much of The Sea is reminiscent of the album Beth Gibbons recorded with Paul Webb back in 2002, particularly its bucolic but eerie opening track Mysteries. Melodically and vocally, Langgard also shares some characteristics with Cortney Tidwell.

The Sea is so focused and coherent that it could be accused of being one-dimensional and lacking in dynamic and sonic variety. Langgard’s strong melodic sensibility and graceful arrangements more than compensate for this, however. The music is so atmospheric as to transport the listener to another world entirely, perhaps even another time. The sometimes unsual instrumentation is superbly balanced. Strings are only ever added to enhance or shift the mood, whilst percussion, mostly absent, is all the more potent and effective when it does appear. The way Langgard tends to integrate her voice with the string arrangements is thoughtful and subtle. The use of a mbira (thumb piano) on Death Will Come is a particularly imaginative flourish.

Also, Langgard’s voice is nuanced – the delivery on Honeydewed Autumn is expressive and seems more rooted in early music, whilst on Death Will Come, she sounds ghostly and rootless. On Sister, she sings languidly, with a sense of desolate beauty. Perhaps best of all is The First To Die, which veers creepily between a remarkably pretty melody and the more chilling lines that reflect the song’s prophetic title.

Whilst much of The Sea could be classified fairly comfortably as folk music, there are occasional moments that suggest Langgard is not concerned with categories or boundaries. Oserian is a mesmerising collage of reversed sounds, a wordless journey through a strange, fairytale world. It has a somewhat aquatic feel to it too, suggesting the album’s title is far from an afterthought. Apparently, The Sea is the first in a projected trilogy of albums dealing with mythology and spirituality. If this is anything to go by, the trilogy as a whole could be a major work.

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