Talk about fearless. Viviane Houle devotes her debut solo release, Treize, to thirteen free improvisations, each one a duet with a member of Vancouver's fertile music scene. The recording reveals her to be a remarkably gifted vocalist, one with an apparently boundless vocal technique. At times (“Au Revas,” her duet with pianist Paul Plimley, an example), her raw attack recalls the kind of vocal acrobatics heard in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and A Survivor from Warsaw—albeit taken to a further extreme. In other moments, she resembles a modern-day incarnation of Sarah Vaughan or kindred spirit to Cassandra Wilson (“Bells Hung in a Tree,” featuring Clyde Reed), with Houle as comfortable lyrically riffing on the vocal jazz tradition as she is venturing into unfamiliar zones of the kind navigated by Maja Ratkje. Though she's been heard in other contexts—she's performed with Wayne Horvitz and Louis Andreissen among others—it's in the improvisational context where she feels most at home.
“Mandrake” finds Houle sounding possessed as she alternates between devilish, guttural moans and child-like squeals, with cellist Peggy Lee gamely shadowing her every move. “Gratte-Moi Le Dos” could pass for the The Exorcist's possessed twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) giving birth with drummer Kenton Loewen providing a percussive soundtrack along the way. Less harrowing by comparison, “Molehills Mumps” finds Houle at first in sprechstime mode alongside Lisa Miller's piano accompaniment before shattering her words into shards of pure vocal sound. Her voice initially distorted by some unidentified filter, Houle softly emotes alongside the bluster and growl of Jeremy Berkman's trombone in “Finely Tuned Is My Heart.” Guitarist Ron Samworth generates a brooding, atmospheric backdrop for Houle's hushed extemporations in “Quiet Eyes”—a stark contrast to the power-chord riffing Brent Belke brings to “Song Not for You.” Houle brings an alien stuttering presence to the lunar ambiance generated by keyboardist Chris Gestrin in “It's Not The Moon,” while l aptopper Stefan Smulovitz (credited with ‘kenxis') sculpts a Ligeti-like spacescape during the closing “Curves.” Obviously what holds the recording together is Houle's voice and the power of her singular, uncompromising vision. Treize isn't an easy listen by any stretch of the imagination yet nevertheless a bold recording that's equally mesmerizing and riveting.