Building song with a grain of voice.
It is very rare to hear an artist who leaves you scrambling for precedents—especially an artist as sublime and alluring as Julianna Barwick. Her sonic cathedrals are built with little more than her own voice, which she loops, warps, and stacks until she has amassed an entire alien choir of herself. A cursory listen may bring to mind thoughts of New Age queen Enya, but further listening reveals that her techniques are more in line with artists like Björk and Panda Bear. Since there is little instrumentation beyond her gossamer vocals, Barwick’s music tends to feel elemental. Song titles like “Sunlight, Heaven” and “Cloudbank” only reinforce this.
Florine is a marked improvement over the lovely but listless Sanguine. Barwick’s melodies are still wisps that drift in and out of the ether, but this time they’re more tangible. Like My Bloody Valentine and Sigur Rós, Barwick uses the human voice as just another instrument to achieve sonic nirvana. Also like those bands, her vocals are often unintelligible and seem to exist solely to convey emotion. Occasionally repeated phrases materialize (i.e. “anyway you choose”) but they barely qualify as lyrics. They mostly remind you that a human being and not some space-faring seraph is singing, although the latter would be awfully cool.
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the bald elephant in the room: Brian Eno. Either directly or indirectly, his ambient work—particularly Apollo and Music for Airports—casts a rather large shadow over Barwick’s catalogue. She is uniquely in tune with the aural alchemy of those records. Most of Florine is clearly the progeny of Apollo, but it still manages to be completely original, due to her novel compositional method. Somehow, Eno’s oblique strategies never led him toward ambient vocal experiments.
The single outlier on Florine is “Anjos”, which boasts very little of Barwick’s voice and instead is built on an ascending piano figure. Considering the fact that Barwick uses her voice mainly as an instrument, it would be accurate to say that almost every song of hers is an “instrumental” in that sense. The EP’s stunning closer, “Bode”, might just be Barwick’s most impressive track to date. It’s a masterful trick to make something that sounds as natural as the wind feel so damn gripping. It’s her very own “Deep Blue Day”.
In recent interviews, Barwick has indicated a desire to progress beyond composing music based purely on her vocal loops. This bodes well for the future of her music because, as amazing as Florine is, an entire LP or even another EP of exactly the same thing would probably become tiresome. The fact that she has carved out a rather unique niche is a rare feat, but expanding her sound will only make her more formidable. I anxiously await the results.
// Notes from the Road
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