Sarah Neufeld: Hero Brother
Constellation Records has been on a particularly wonderful roll of late, what with last year's Godspeed release Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! having been followed by Colin Stetson's New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light and Saltland's I Thought It Was Us But It Was All Of Us. That high level carries on into the Montreal label's latest offerings, Hero Brother by violinist-composer Sarah Neufeld and Dalmak by the quartet Esmerine, both of which are exceptional releases that argue powerfully on behalf of Constellation's vision.
Though one might have anticipated the debut solo album by Montreal-based Neufeld to be somewhat similar in style to the high-intensity music she plays in Arcade Fire (she's also a member of the instrumental ensemble Bell Orchestre), the violinist challenges expectations by making a solo album in the most literal sense of the word. Aside from harmonium and piano contributions on two songs from co-producer Nils Frahm, the album, in essence a collection of solo violin pieces, is performed entirely by Neufeld. But make no mistake: Hero Brother is no sterile conservatory session. Instead, it's a wide-ranging collection of impassioned performances Neufeld laid down in Berlin at a variety of locations, among them an abandoned geodesic dome and underground parking garage. When ambient traces of such locales seep into the tracks (rumbling during “Breathing Black Ground,” for example), the material is enhanced by the additional atmosphere, just as it is when she adds a wordless vocal to “Tower” and accompanies her rustic sawing on the title track with aggressive foot-stomping.
She often plays with a countrified rawness that strengthens the impact of the material (see “Sprinter Fire”), yet she's also capable of playing with delicacy and restraint, as shown by the plaintive “You Are the Field” and haunting closer “Below.” Each song adds a different flavour to the album: eschewing bowing altogether, “They Live On” shifts the focus to string plucks and Neufeld's voice; reminiscent of his string quartet writing, “Right Thought” could pass for a Philip Glass homage; and with Frahm on piano, “Forcelessness” brings Neufeld into the Erased Tapes orbit by evoking what would come out of a typical Peter Broderick-Frahms session. More infused by the spirit of avant-folk and alt-rock than concert hall classical music, the forty-three-minute recording deftly redirects the energy associated with a typical Arcade Fire performance into a more-than-credible solo project.
Neufeld also guests on Esmerine's latest, a follow-up to 2011's La Lechuza, but she's merely one guest of many. In fact, the quartet proper has opened its doors so widely to the contributions of others on Dalmak, it's sometimes hard to get a clear sense of what the group itself sounds like. That's a small price to pay, however, when the results are so compelling. The group itself—cellist Rebecca Foon (Silver Mt. Zion, Set Fire To Flames), percussionist Bruce Cawdron (ex-Godspeed You! Black Emperor), percussionist Jamie Thompson (Unicorns, Islands), and multi-instrumentalist Brian Sanderson—is joined by Neufeld and contrabassist Aaron Lumley on multiple tracks. Even more critical to Dalmak 's sound, however, is the participation of Hakan Vreskala (bendir, darbuka, erbane, voice), Baran Asik (meh), Ali Kazim Akdag (barama, saz), and and electric guitarist James Hakan Dedeoglu, Turkish musicians who recorded with the group in 2012 after Esmerine accepted an invitation of an artist residency in Istanbul. Initial recording sessions in Istanbul produced the basic material for “Lost River Blues,” “Barn Board Fire,” and “Translator's Clos,” wherein Esmerine's marimba, cello, drums, tenor banjo, bass, and cornet mix with the Turkish musicians' sounds, after which more sessions occurred in Montreal at Breakglass Studio.
Neufeld is front and center on the stirring, strings-heavy scene-setter “Learning to Crawl,” after which the Turkish dimension prominently asserts itself in the sorrowful ululations that lend “Lost River Blues I” such emotive power. It's world music in the best sense of the term, with Cawdron's pulsing marimba patterns and Sanderson's cornet playing effecting a luscious cross-cultural merger with the Turkish instruments that's, in a word, hypnotic. By contrast, “Lost River Blues II” explodes in an exuberant array of swaying rhythms and sinuous melodies, while the equally intense “Barn Board Fire” casts a powerful spell in a piece that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Material's own 1994 cross-cultural outing Hallucination Engine. The album balances quieter moments, such as the meditative organ drone “Hayale Dalmak” and contemplative “White Pine,” with heavier ones like the two-part “Translator's Clos” where the narcoticized Turkish melodies and feverish percussive interplay are at their most potent. The title, incidentally, wasn't pulled out of thin air: Dalmak is a Turkish verb that refers to contemplation, absorption, and immersion, and as such is an apt choice for an album that's all about deep cultural and musical immersion.