Nerissa Schwarz: Playgrounds Lost
Nerissa Schwarz

For listeners of a certain age, specifically those whose history includes an immersive engagement with and nostalgic affection for ‘70s prog, Nerissa Schwarz's Playgrounds Lost will have a special appeal. The nine-song collection was written, arranged, produced, and performed by Schwarz using electric harp and mellotron, and it's of course the latter instrument's sound that so stirringly evokes that specific musical period, even if that's pretty much where any similarities between her and, say, King Crimson end.

Though Playgrounds Lost is Schwarz's first solo release, she brings many years of involvement in other projects to the album. When not composing and recording solo material, for example, she performs with Frequency Drift, a progressive rock outfit to which she contributes songs and electric harp arrangements and with whom she's recorded five albums. But it's the solo material, which she's been working on since 2014, that is our present concern.

Conceived of as an “exploration of the beauty, fragility, and traumas of childhood,” Playgrounds Lost is transporting, graced as it is by the haunting sonorities of the harp and mellotron. There's a distinctly pastoral-folk dimension to the material as well, a quality that lends Schwarz's music a timeless appeal; though the instrumentals were clearly produced recently, they could just as easily pass for impressionistic settings spawned decades ago, even if the polished production values suggest a modern recording.

The flute-like sonorities of the mellotron are deployed to full effect on “No More Games” and “Fireflying,” and when tethered to the entrancing sounds of the harp, the results are truly magical. As per the latter's title, the image of a child witnessing fireflies for the first time on a dark summer's night springs vividly to mind. “No More Games,” by comparison, conjures a far more disturbing vision, like a nightmare teeming with threat. Each piece plays like a Gothic fairy tale shaped into sonic form as a complete and fully realized miniature.

In keeping with its title, “Dance Around Black Hole” exudes an ominous, even macabre character, while “Something Behind Trees” musters a similarly evocative level of mystery, the forest in this case seemingly filled with goblins and other creatures concealed by darkness. Here and elsewhere, the evocative power of Schwarz's music is greatly enhanced by the crystalline pluck of the harp and the dark undercurrents generated by the mellotron. It's important to note, however, that the range of sounds Schwarz coaxes from the two instruments is greater than anticipated. Had I not known better, I would have guessed that multiple keyboards, guitar, and vibes were amongst the instruments used to produce the album.

October 2016