Julia Holter first appeared in the singer-songwriter scene in 2011 with her debut record Tragedy. With her first record, Holter created a captivating sound, relying on electronic components, and crafting her art pop vision around musique concrete, ambient, and drone notions. Her sophomore full-length Ekstasis saw her continue with her electronic experimentations and ambient leanings, but controlling their presence in a more firm manner. The real breakthrough came with Loud City Song, a stellar release that saw Holter move into the avant-pop domain, crafting a record that thrived under its experimental guise but on the other hand, producing a more direct result. The follow-up Have You in My Wilderness saw the promise of a more straightforward and direct sound come full circle, with the record being the most accessible of Holter’s works and yet losing none of the songwriter’s mesmerizing touch.
Holter has produced works on opposite ends of the experimental spectrum, from the more avant-garde sounds of Tragedy and Ekstasis to the dream pop-infused indie quality of Have You in My Wilderness. Having travelled to these extremes now she sets out to unleash her most ambitious work to date in the 90 minutes long Aviary. With the 15 songs of her new album, Holter presents a complete and holistic experience, building from the bottom up sonic worlds and intriguing journeys through immersive dreamscapes.
The arrangements and the extended instrumentation are an intrinsic part of Aviary, and this becomes very clear from the very beginning of “Turn the Light On”. The power with which the track arrives is astounding, and the manner in which the progression turns into a stream of consciousness type of rendition makes the endeavor that much more extraordinary. This leaning towards improvisation is clear throughout the record, and the jazz aesthetic that is introduced in the opening track is revisited constantly. This experimentation creates a further layer of sonic richness, resulting in an amazing tapestry of sounds that Holter meticulously explores.
From the improvisational aspect, Holter jumps to a neo-classical area, mirrored in the instrumentation and the progression of the music. “Colligere” arrives with this majestic touch, unveiling the more subtle aspects of Aviary. Similarly, “Worlds I Heard” explores a more delicate path, in the process creating a transcendental work. On the other end, “I Shall Love 1” makes use of these neo-classical leanings for a more impressive and poignant effect, combined with a slightly tighter rhythmic progression to build one of the more powerful moments of the record. From this almost militaristic rendition, Holter performs further experimentations with the rhythmic component. “Underneath the Moon” is such a moment with Holter crafting a pseudo-tribal backbone for the track to create an intoxicating overture, further displaying her more adventurous nature.
All the main aspects that made Holter such an enticing artist still find their way in Aviary. The baroque pop element with its retro characteristics is still prevalent. “Whether” is an example of that modus operandi, with its off-kilter rhythms working wonders in creating retro atmospherics. The playful melodies of “Voce Simul” further display this quality of Holter’s vision, while “Les Jeux to You” takes this playful perspective to a whole different level. The track is adventurous, and Holter treats it almost like a sandbox, a place where she can fully explore the extent of her vision, and this process results in one of the most interesting moments of the record.
The same playful attitude is applied to find intersections between diverse musical genres, from blues and jazzy themes to folkish twist. “Chaitius” is an instance where this folk perspective rises to the surface, as Holter creates a potent ambiance for the magical realm she has created. “Voce Simul” explores some of the same pathways but instead arrives with a more emotional and almost mournful tone, displaying the more delicate side of Holter’s music in an elegant and minimal manner.
This elegant approach is also at the center when the dream pop parts of the record arrive. Here Holter investigates the ethereal soundscapes of her music and constructs immersive dreamscapes from these. “Another Dream” is an example of this approach, unveiling a very subtle and elegant narrative. Even more subtle is “I Shall Love 2”, which stars from a minimal beginning and slowly expands to a terrifying presence, something analogous to the progression of “I Would Rather See”. Still, this melodic leaning does not suggest that Holter does not experiment with dissonance and more unconventional sounds. “Everyday Is an Emergency” sees the songwriter produce a much harsher offering, using sharp cacophony to create a more hostile environment. Aided in that case by the improvisational nature of the record and the multitude of instruments, the result becomes even more menacing.
Holter has always been able to force opposing musical entities into a coherent result, but the degree to which she has been able to do this in Aviary is mind-blowing. Not only does the album feature all the characteristics that build Holter’s identity as a musician, but she has expanded her vision by adding new ideas regarding progression, instrumentation, and scope. It is the summation of all these parts that make Aviary such an excellent album, and one that will be very hard to follow.