PopMatters Picks: the best new cultural offerings

Areni Agbabian Brings Heart and Spirit to Minimal Avant-Garde Folk on 'Bloom'

Photo courtesy of the artist

The key to Areni Agbabian's success on Bloom is a purity of emotion; passion laid bare in such a way that it allows her and Nicolas Stocker to execute not only with significant technical skill but with feeling.

Bloom
Areni Agbabian

ECM

26 April 2019

It takes a special talent to garner a personal endorsement from the ever-innovative jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan, but Areni Agbabian comes by it honestly. For over six years, Agbabian has sung with Hamasyan, collaborating with him on several albums and many more live tours. On new release Bloom, she draws from Armenian folk performances, classical choral music, and improvisatory jazz, only to defy all expectations for every single one of these genres as she puts forth a repertoire of pieces impossible to define and easy to dissolve into.

Bloom has a compact personnel list. Agbabian composes, sings, and plays piano; Nicolas Stocker weaves in bells, gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, and other touches of percussion. With the exception of two interstitial tracks credited to producer Manfred Eicher - "Rain Drops" and "Whiteness", each just over 30 seconds' worth of slow, stirring piano chords - two Armenian hymns, and one folk tune transcribed by ethnomusicologist Komitas Vardapet, Agbabian and Stocker also served as composers for the full album, the artistic bond they share evident in the way their pieces and performances flow together.

And flow they do. Sylphlike melodies float through the air, from Agbabian's heart and soul to her keys and lips, forward to us. Each piece enraptures, imbued with a kind of holiness that feels untouched by earthly difficulties. Opening track "Patience" may be one of the most memorable examples, cleansing and effortless, the kind of song that has never touched the earth with its bare feet.

Of course, to think of Agbabian's music as a substance separate from this mortal realm would be contradictory. As heavenly as the music sounds, the human element - Agbabian, Stocker, and centuries of Armenian people who have established and contributed to both the sacred and the secular traditions that so strongly influence Agbabian - is essential, inextricable from Bloom.

But Agbabian elevates it. She does not have to reach upward - she is weightless already, seemingly unburdened by temporal woes. Her sincere spirituality and a lifetime surrounded by opera, choir, and folk music from Armenia and Bulgaria mix perfectly on tracks like "Mother", a piece with the reverence of a contemporary classical song and a structure flexible enough for calls across the Caucasus. "Garun A" is more avant-garde, minimal gongs and non-lexical vocables making up a sparse soundscape. The experimentation continues on "The River", a more frantic mix of improvised vocal melismas and syncopated percussion that, much like a river, moves unpredictably until a quick tapering-off at the end.

Bloom's central piano motif, found on tracks "Petal One", "Petal Two", and "Full Bloom", spirals with singular beauty, emblematic of the album's emphasis on negative space. Agbabian follows its final iteration, on "Full Bloom", with a solemn verse that quotes Song of Solomon. Her devotion here is palpable, gentility inlaid with ecstasy.

Tracks that deviate from the white light add texture and depth. Stocker takes the lead on percussion solo tracks "Light Effect" and "Colored", both of which showcase his affinity for subtlety and polyrhythms and make for inspiring layers. "The Water Bride" features Agbabian reciting a spoken word folktale over scattered notes and beats. Quick mbira adds titularly appropriate drive to "Yearning". Final track "Seeing More", though, is a return to form, piano and voice gliding into the distance.

The key to Areni Agbabian's success on Bloom is a purity of emotion; passion laid bare in such a way that it allows her and Stocker to execute not only with significant technical skill but with feeling. That is what propels this duo to the inventive heights they reach together on Agbabian's Bloom - nimble hands, attentive ears, and a love for their creations that transcends all else.

8
Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Books
Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Books

The American Robot: A Cultural History [By the Book]

In The American Robot, Dustin A. Abnet explores how robots have not only conceptually connected but literally embodied some of the most critical questions in modern culture, as seen in this excerpt from chapter 5 "Building the Slaves of Tomorrow", courtesy of University of Chicago Press.

Dustin A. Abnet
Film
Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Film

'The Serpent's Egg' Marks One of Ingmar Bergman's Strangest Efforts

The Serpent's Egg bares many of the Bergman's trademark features – the suffocating auras of despair and an underdog's sense of triumph over tragedy – but falls short of a more intelligent rendering of human drama.

Recent
Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Music

'Stone Crush' Proves (Again) That Memphis Is Ground Zero for Soul and R&B

Stone Crush shines a light on the forgotten -- or never known -- artists that passed through the doors of Memphis' most storied studios in an attempt at just one fleeting moment of fame.

Music

Circles Around the Sun Shoot for the Stars on New Album

Jamrockers Circles Around the Sun's self-titled third album finds the band transcending darkness after losing their founder in 2019 to chart a groovy new course.

Music

Jazz's Kandace Springs Pays Tribute to 'The Women Who Raised Me'

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs tackles a dozen songs associated with her jazz vocal heroes, and the combination of simplicity and sincerity is winning.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.