Aun: Phantom Ghost
Denovali Records

Birds Of Passage and Leonardo Rosado: Dear and Unfamiliar
Denovali Records

Dear and Unfamiliar finds New Zealand vocalist Alicia Merz (aka Birds of Passage) collaborating with Portugal-based electronic producer Leonardo Rosado on a hypnotic set of dark laments. Throughout the recording, thick pockets of reverb-heavy haze fill the background, providing a near-opaque base against which an emotive Merz recounts tragic tales of lost love. And though a wistful and romantic sensibility is intimated by song titles such as “I Wonder if You Sing It Now” and “To Wander Slow With Me,” Dear and Unfamiliar is not merely a nostalgic homage to 1942's Casablanca or other Hollywood films from long ago. Instead, it's a modern-day suite of haunted songs that achieves a rather seamless blend between ethereal vocal drift and crepuscular instrumental backdrops. It's a combination that often proves arresting, especially when Merz's whisper appears alongside convulsions of sitars and percussion during the exotic “Of Your Charm” and when “To Wander Slow With Me” pairs her serenading vocal melodics with a percussive-heavy backing that, in some respects, suggests a construction zone.

The title track immediately brings the album's style into focus, with Merz's voice prominently positioned in the mix—all the better for the song's melodies to work their magic—and atmospheric ambient textures spreading themselves out behind. In “Here's Lookin' at You, Kid,” a backdrop of ambient shudder forms a quiet storm for a spectral Merz to emote against. “I Wonder if You Sing It Now” proves to be especially haunting in its mix of dusty piano sprinklings and Merz's quietly plaintive vocal. A few non-vocal tracks (“A Kiss is Just a Kiss,” for example) act as instrumental interludes and shift the focus to the generous range of sonic detail within a given piece, plus the album includes a guest turn by Tiago Morais Morgado, whose piano playing is given ample room to maneuvre amidst the rhythmic industrial churn of “Endings and Beginnings.” Though its title might reference Humphrey Bogart, “We'll Always Have Paris” unfolds, like much of Dear and Unfamiliar, like a hazy and somewhat unsettling dream welling up from the deepest depths of consciousness.

Canadian duo Julie Leblanc (vocals, guitar, piano) and Martin Dumais (guitar, bass, synths, programming) serve up a simpatico brand of dreamscaping in their latest Aun full-length Phantom Ghost. What differentiates Aun's album from Dear and Unfamiliar is that, while the latter concentrates on romantic nightscaping, the former nods more in the direction of shoegaze-styled ambient; secondly, whereas the instrumental piece is the exception to the rule on Dear and Unfamiliar, the opposite is the case on Phantom Ghost. Despite such differences, both outfits are united in their focus on ethereal songcraft.

“Phantom” gently eases the listener into Aun's gauzy universe, before “Out of Mind” pulverizes with a blistering guitar-and-drums attack that wouldn't sound out of place on Loveless. The track hits with a crushing force that communicates with no lack of clarity that Aun is just as capable of burying the listener under a mountain-sized assault of shoegaze noise as it is serenading him/her with a gothic electro-ballad. As stated, Phantom Ghost offsets a modest number of vocal tracks with a larger share of instrumental settings. With Leblanc's vocals taking a breather, grime and distortion seep into the ponderous instrumental blur of “Travellers,” while “Orga II” likewise spreads a thick coating of fuzz across a lulling industrial-ambient base of beats, molten guitars, and gauzy melodic fragments. A hint of Popol Vuh-styled psychedelia wends its way through Aun's material, too, as shown by “Light Years,” a luscious ambient moodpiece that would seem Eno-like if it weren't covered in layers of noise. Near album's end, “Ghost” builds to a near apocalyptic pitch when hushed vocals and instruments blend into a grandiose swirl, after which the unlisted vignette “Berlin” eases the album out with a piece that could easily pass for an out-take from Tangerine Dream's Phaedra. Needless to say, these two Denovali releases are different in certain respects, but they're both amply rewarding, too, as far as listening experiences are concerned.

December 2011