Avi C. Engel
Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana

Avi C. Engel Evokes Ancient to Modern Sounds on ‘Too Many Souls’

Too Many Souls is the latest installment in Canadian alternative folk artist Avi C. Engel’s pursuit of “one long continuous song”.

Too Many Souls
Avi C. Engel
23 February 2024

Toronto musician and poet Avi C. Engel has built a long, prolific career by combining evocative, often dark lyrical imagery with sparse musical settings. Too Many Souls, Engel’s first release since they changed their first name, continues in the mood of last year’s Sanguinaria, albeit with purer devotion to acoustic instruments in what might be described as minimalist folk music.

“Folk” is a vague catch-all for music that often feels ambient in effect with echoes of early darkwave by such artists as Dead Can Dance. Engel is a master of numerous stringed instruments, including the gudok, an ancient Slavic lute-shaped instrument played with a bow. Their last few albums have employed related stringed instruments, such as the gusli and talharpa, to unify music that often sounds ageless in origin.

Engel says of their work: “I’m not writing the same song over and over so much as writing one long continuous song that will end when I die.” This sense of continuum enables Too Many Souls to work best when heard in the context of earlier releases – 31 in total – stretching back to 2004’s debut EP Jump of Flame. (Bandcamp has all of them.)

The new album begins with “Hold This Flame”, the most ambient of the tracks. It builds in intensity from a quiet mantra of wordless vocals to a haunting rhythm of acoustic percussion. The accompanying video, by the artist Geoffrey Boulangé (available on YouTube), uses black and white underwater footage filmed off the Canary Islands to add a ghostly visual ecology to the music.

The gudok, backed with Engel’s arpeggiated acoustic guitar, features prominently in the remaining six tracks, embellished with minimal percussion and occasional notes on the melodica. On five original songs, Engel sings simple, often repeated lines evoking the state of the world and a quest for meaning within it. “I do my best to ride this wave / To tread softly and misbehave,” Engel sings in “Breadcrumb Dance”, in which materialism and fruitless progress produce a “mess” against which the artist quietly recoils.

For all the modernity in Engel’s lyrics, the gudok, with its old-world timbre and loose relationship with standard tuning, provides an eerie counterpoint – like an echo of the past bleeding into the present. Engel’s self-proclaimed determination to “build sensory worlds that fuse with… sung poetry” thrives on the call-and-response between ancient and contemporary sounds.

The dark mood of most of Too Many Souls brightens just a tad on “The Oven Bird’s Song”, where Engel echoes Robert Frost in a song with pastoral overtones beneath its theme of longing. One is reminded here of the lyrical wanderlust of classic folk artists like Vashti Bunyan and June Tabor – a determined traditionalism in the face of modern malaise and anxiety.

The final track is a radial instrumental rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger”, the traditional American folk ballad best known in sung versions by Burl Ives and Jo Stafford. Twisted and darkened by Engel’s approach – employing, once again, that moaning gudok – the song loses the affability of Stafford’s string-sweetened version to become a forlorn journey into an emotional abyss.

Engel’s music is not for everyone, and its relentlessly intense, often somber mood demands commitment from the listener towards its particular vision. Guest musicians and occasional bursts of electricity in some of Engel’s earlier work, such as 2020’s Hatching Under the Stars, added variety and dynamics less apparent in Too Many Souls. However, an artist as prolific as Engel never sticks to one approach, making any one album a musical station on a much longer journey. Their new album arrives at an opportune time, as the popularity of meditative, earthbound music is on the rise – thanks in part to the success that greeted Andre 3000’s New Blue Sun in 2023.

Too Many Souls is available in various formats across territories. Bandcamp has the digital version, while CDs are available from the Somnimage label in the US. There’s even a cassette version available from Cruel Nature Records in the UK – although European customers can also access the digital stream through them.

RATING 7 / 10