Astrïd and Rachel Grimes: Through the Sparkle
Gizeh Records

No slight is intended against Astrïd when I say that Through the Sparkle could pass for a new album by Rachel's, even if it's been fourteen years since Systems/Layers, the last full album from that much-admired outfit, appeared. Any thought that Rachel Grimes' chamber music ensemble might one day reunite was laid to rest when guitarist Jason Noble died in 2012; earlier this year, tragedy struck again when percussionist Edward Grimes passed away.

But this new effort featuring pianist Rachel Grimes with the Nantes-based ensemble goes a long way towards resurrecting Rachel's sound, especially when Astrïd's violinist Vanina Andréani, guitarist Cyril Secq, clarinetist Guillaume Wickel, and drummer Yvan Ros contribute many of the same instrumental colours to the album as the earlier band. Grimes, incidentally, hasn't been dormant since Rachel's demise; recently issuing contemporary classical material under her own name, Book of Leaves appeared in 2009, as well as the more recent The Clearing, which Temporary Residence issued in 2015.

The collaboration arose when initial mail exchanges led to Grimes traveling overseas to join Astrïd for a residency and play shows in France, after which they convened periodically to write songs that were recorded between 2013 and 2015 at Andréani and Secq's home studio in the countryside. In general, the music they created sees interwoven layers of clarinets, strings, and guitars animated by a strong percussive undercurrent, with kalimba, metallophone, harmonium, and electric piano judiciously added to enhance the core sound.

In the album's seven settings, lilting, Rachel's-like drum pulses appear alongside climactic build-ups and quieter, mood-establishing passages. Lyrical melodic themes emerge out of extended ruminative sequences, and the musicians produce a quasi-symphonic whole that seems grander than one might expect from only five players. While there are sombre moments (“The Theme”), the forty-four-minute album makes room for light-hearted, even playful ones, too (“Hollis”). There are parts where the playing suggests commonalities with Godspeed You! Black Emperor as much as Rachel's, and Secq's tremolo guitar figures during the first half of “M5” lend the material a lonely feel more likely to remind listeners of someone like Loren MazzaCane Connors than a chamber music outfit. Andréani's plaintive contributions make a strong mark on “M1” and “Le Petit Salon,” while Wickel's clarinet playing, bass and otherwise, is also an integral part of the collective sound.

Today's new music landscape is populated with no small number of modern classical ensembles, which can make it easy to forget how groundbreaking Rachel's was when it formed in Louisville, Kentucky in 1991 and began issuing material four years later. Not that it's the only that recommends the project, but Through the Sparkle does much to remind us of how special and innovative the band was for its time.

September 2017