The Bees Are Coming
Oakland, California-based Agnes Szelag is many things: an MFA graduate in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College, a member of Myrmyr (alongside Marielle Jakobsons aka Darwinsbitch), and solo recording artist in her own right. Her first outing on the Aphonia label happened two years ago when she issued the No Summer or Winter EP under her birth name, and it's now followed by her first full-length The Bees Are Coming, which explores Szelag's songwriting side under the pseudonym Evon. While the album finds her once again acting as a one-person mini-orchestra (she's credited with cello, bass, guitar, harpsichord, glockenspiel, guzheng, psaltry, vibraphone, piano, electronics, harp, and percussion), it also features contributions from a small number of guests, many of whom are responsible for bringing a harder edge to the album with contributions that are more suggestive of moody goth-rock than classical or avant-garde genres.
“Filling Gaps,” an exotic weave of high-pitched strings and mallet percussion (marimba, vibraphone) that's somewhat reminiscent of Gamelan music, bleeds into “Comic Book Cells,” where Szelag's voice drapes itself languorously across a dark, meditative backdrop. There's a pronounced vocal presence on the album, not to mention a stronger gravitation towards accessible song structures, that can make it seem like more of a calculated bid for broader acceptance on Szelag's part—not that she need apologize for wanting her music to reach beyond a circumscribed pool of experimental aficionados. In places, a much harder sound emerges compared to the music she's released prior to The Bees Are Coming, as the gothic dirge “Oakland” makes clear when the snarl of her lead vocal is shadowed by macabre vocal chants while heavy drums (by Jordan Glenn) and a small guitar army (Alec Karim, Jon Porras, The Norman Conquest) lend their own brand of dissonance to the material. Listening to “Oakland” and the near-cacophanous closer “Love is Wild,” one might be forgiven for thinking Carla Bozulich might have had a place on Szelag's recent playlist. “One of These Days” accompanies her haunting vocal with harpsichord in a lilting goth-pop exercise, while the clarity of her multi-tracked voice manages to rise above the aura of anguish cultivated within the murder ballad “Bees Knees.”
Ultimately, however, darkly atmospheric settings such as “City of Embers” and “The Thread” make the strongest impression as they play to her instrumental sound-sculpting strengths and move her cello playing to the forefront where it sometimes arm-wrestles for dominance with the haunted vocalizing. All power to Szelag for fearlessly pushing her music into new and heretofore unexplored territory on The Bees Are Coming, but The Amber Sea, Szelag's superb 2009 collaboration with Jakobsons under the Myrmyr name, nevertheless remains this listener's preferred Szelag recording to date.