Ian William Craig: A Turn Of Breath

No recording in recent memory has evoked the work of Akira Rabelais to a greater degree than this premiere album by Ian William Craig, a trained opera singer born in Edmonton in 1980. In fact, had I not known beforehand that the material I was about to hear was by Craig, I would have guessed A Turn Of Breath to be a new release by Rabelais, for the simple reason that Craig manipulates his singing in a manner reminiscent of the way Rabelais, using his Argeïphontes Lyre software, reconfigured tape recordings of traditional Icelandic a cappella singing on the 2004 release spellewauerynsherde. Just as the outcome on that recording straddles medieval and modern eras, so too does Craig's, even if it relies primarily on his voice to achieve its effect.

In the case of A Turn Of Breath, Craig obscures his singing using tape malfunctions and manipulations and a system of reel-to-reels, resulting in something that suggests on the one hand a home recording experiment and on the other a formal solo vocal recital. Available in two editions (375 on standard black vinyl and a deluxe edition of 125 pressed on infused purple and tan wax and supplemented by the CD-R EP Short of Breath), the album features twelve pieces of song-length duration recorded between 2011 and 2013.

The opening “Before Meaning Comes” can be regarded as representative of the album in the way Craig's voice is only sometimes recognizable, given the extent to which it's been altered by treatments. If anything, A Turn Of Breath often plays as if man and machine have been melded together into some Cyborg-like mechanism, with each component dominating at different moments. And while a unifying sound design is evident, Craig wisely varies the presentation so that a choral piece such as “Red Gate with Starling” is followed by a setting like “Rooms” where a starker arrangement for voice and acoustic guitar is deployed.

The results achieved by Craig can be strikingly beautiful, especially in those moments when his plaintive, high-pitched voice is least obscured and the melodies are at their most sorrowful. When that happens, the effect is akin to the illuminating warmth of sunlight breaking through oppressive cloud cover. If the listener comes away from the recording wishing anything had been handled differently, it would be for the album to have featured a greater number of moments where his voice in its most unaltered form is heard, as happens in “Either Or,” a mesmerizing choral setting, and “A Slight Grip, A Gentle Hold (Part II),” a folk setting that's as memorable for its vocal arrangement as its harmonium playing (or at least what appears to be harmonium). All possible caveats aside, Craig, using the most minimal of elements, has produced a startlingly well-realized and oft-haunting recording, and that it's a debut makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

August-September 2014