Review : Julia Holter - Ekstasis
ResonantpassageIn this day and age, it is relatively easy for an artist to amass a whirlwind of internet buzz and hype, especially in the indie music world. With this comes the inevitability that some new musicians will falter under the intense scrutiny and anticipation, or become prematurely heralded before they have fully blossomed as a songwriter. This is, at times, no fault of his or her own, but of the insatiable hunger of bloggers and internet hype machines to find the next big thing in music. This can be seen as a product of the unprecedented amount of accessibility given to the listener by way of technological means.
Yet Julia Holter represents a success of this new way of doing things and an argument for why it is an improvement upon the past system. If music were only relegated through physical means and discovered only through large magazines, would listeners have become aware of Holter at this point in her career? It is questionable to say the least, but one thing is for certain: the current method unequivocally got it right with the promotion of this promising young artist.
Ekstasis is the quick follow-up to her 2011 LP Tragedy, and sees her further develop her knack for creating a definitive atmosphere with her compositions. The listener is immediately reminded of this ability with “Our Sorrows.” The last portion of the song features wordless vocals from Holter, backed by a variety of strings and electronics that surround her voice with an ambient fog. This emphasis on atmosphere, if overused, can lull the listener into a state where the tracks blend together with little staying power or memorability. Fortunately, Holter is able to combat this through successfully altering the mood and pace of each orchestration, all while still implementing and emphasizing her greatest talent on each. Sometimes the track possesses a blanket of melancholy (the aforementioned “Our Sorrow”), while other times the song is exultant in nature (“Boy In the Moon”) or recalls classical sounds (“Marienbad”)....full text
Pitchfork"I hear a lot of music that's just lazy-- you know, people in their bedrooms singing some shit into the microphone." That's California singer and songwriter Julia Holter, talking to Pitchfork recently. This passage from the interview leapt out at me because it gets at what makes her second full-length album special. Like a lot of home-recorded music in the indie sphere in the last few years, Ekstasis makes heavy use of atmosphere. There's plenty of reverb and vocal tracks are braided together into drones; it's the kind of swirly production that's good for hiding mistakes. But nothing Holter does feels random. This album is above all CAREFUL, and its deliberate construction allows it to work on a different plane from most music that scans as "ethereal." Ekstasis is not the sort of oceanic wash you lose yourself in; instead, Holter's music has a way of snapping tiny moments and small sonic gestures into focus. Ekstasis is above all SMART, and it makes no apologies for it.
Holter's work exists at the intersection between pop and "serious" music. The mayor of that particular corner is, of course, Laurie Anderson, and there are obvious parallels between the two. You can hear Anderson in Holter's flat, chant-like inflection, which allows her music and lyrics to do the emotional work. You can also hear it in her love of simplicity and approach to mixing traditional instrumentation and electronics. Another touchstone is the dark magic of Klaus Nomi. It's not just that the tracks like "Fur Felix" bear a similarity to Nomi tracks like "Keys of Life", there's also an undercurrent of ritualism and theatricality in Holter's music. Ekstasis is certainly mysterious, but not because meaning is hard to pin down; it's more that there are so many possible meanings, so many places to focus your attention.
Listening to Ekstasis, I keep thinking about how it differs from music that feels superficially similar. The music of Julianna Barwick, for example, has liturgical overtones, bringing to mind stone and glass and voices rising in cathedrals. Barwick wants to tap into something beyond words. But Holter's music sounds like it was assembled in a dusty library a floor or two below the sanctuary. It's a few shades darker, but it's also based on ideas first and intuition second. Despite using vocoders, drum machines, and electronics, it feels "old" in part because Holter so deliberately connects her music to the distant past. On her debut album, she did so by basing her songs on a play from ancient Greece by Euripides; here, she pulls words and scenarios from literature and mixes them with her own idiosyncratic approach to words. The songs include quotes from the likes of Virginia Woolf and Frank O'Hara. A line from O'Hara's poem "Having a Coke With You"-- "I look at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world"-- animates "Moni Mon Ami", nestled amid the twinkling synths, strings, and keyboards that sound like harpsichord are original lines like "Hours become years when you're gone!"...full text
NprWhen the world is at the tip of anyone's fingers, there's little space for a true vanguard of sound. Think about it: When was the last time you heard or saw something entirely new? Experiences like Gaspar Noe's film Enter the Void and Scott Walker's album The Drift shook me to my core, and questioned my ideas of not only art, but also life itself. But trace the steps and you'll find Ennio Morricone and Krzysztof Penderecki in Walker, or Kenneth Anger and 2001: A Space Odyssey in Noe. We're a culture that recycles — no revelatory observation — but with Ekstasis, Julia Holter has created a radically new world from a crystalline Venn diagram of sound.
Last year's Tragedy reshaped ambient music from a place that's still hard to pin down. It was like a multicolored patchwork garment unraveling from several loose threads; you couldn't just drop into the Hippolytus-inspired work, which is what makes Ekstasis such a vibrant counterpart. Instead of roaming textures that drift in and out, the arrangements here are decidedly "pop," with Holter's voice at the center. But that doesn't make Ekstasis any less complex.
"Marienbad" is, at first, an unlikely opening: a bouncing Baroque-pop song layered by Holter's sprightly vocal performance and percussive, harpsichord-like keyboard. But halfway through, musical mitosis occurs, as an ambient choir hits a four-on-the-foor house beat that's as much Steve Reich as it is Giorgio Moroder horror soundtrack. The album's centerpiece, "Für Felix," may be a charming Beethoven nod in name, but its roots extend to the late New York City composer Arthur Russell, whose reissued and recently unearthed works are an unending source of discovery. It's not only the plucked cello that feels so Russell-ian; it's also how effortlessly Holter inhabits the the body, the strings, the rhythm of that instrument. That's what made Russell so special after all, and it's rare to hear anyone truly take that lesson to heart.
The harpsichord also appears during "In the Same Room," probably the most straightforward and remix-worthy electro-pop track on Ekstasis — I'm looking at you, Blondes — even if its medieval qualities make it oh-so-stately. That also makes it as good a place as any to utter the name Kate Bush. In recent years, Bush has been a touchstone for other sonically challenging female musicians like Zola Jesus, Fielded, Beru, Grouper and Chelsea Wolfe, but only that. Each artist occupies and crosses over so many realms; some create ambient and pop music unlike anything else before it.
As Ekstasis turns pop inside out, it also challenges the abstract ideas that inform the record. Closing with "This Is Ekstasis," it's almost as if Ornette Coleman's complicated harmolodics theory has found a new way to reach the masses besides mutant funk. Voices bounce around amid disjointed electro beats, Gothic synths, dubbed-out noise and a barroom free-jazz band playing in an adjacent room, so that when Julia Holter intones, "Joy! Ekstasis!" it sounds like a new pop proclamation....full text
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