Being a great admirer of Marvin Ayres' solo recordings, I'd hoped that I'd be able to champion his Mask project as unreservedly, but unfortunately I can't. Technopia—the woeful title itself a bad sign—is the second album from the collaborative union of singer Sonja Kristina (who's been touring with a reformed Curved Air during the past few years) and strings virtuoso Ayres (whose acclaimed output includes the Cellosphere, Eccentric Deliquescence, and Neptune recordings). While indisputably a well-crafted collection, Technopia proves disappointing on a number of counts.
Perhaps most regrettably, Ayres' string playing is often way down in the mix, so much that it's at times a tangential presence, and as a result the focus shifts to Kristina's voice, synthesizers, and programmed beats (by Ayres and Ben Wiesner) in material that one might characterize as electronic goth-punk in style. It's as if Ayres deliberately chose to bury the strings in the mix in order to emphasize that Mask is a group, not merely another vehicle for his string playing. The second weak element is Kristina's singing, which would benefit from a different delivery than the quasi-operatic one heard throughout the album (tellingly, the songs that feature Ayres' singing have greater vocal appeal)—Siouxsie Sioux she ain't. Mask's “Sound and Vision” cover is well-intentioned but the too-polite lounge treatment adds nothing to Bowie's original and predictably pales next to it. The M.O.R. stylings of “Space in Between” and “Faithless” seem better suited to someone like Barbra Streisand, and Kristina's overly emotive delivery doesn't render the material any more palatable.
Which isn't to suggest that the album doesn't include a fair share of pleasurable moments. “Time To Let Go” is redeemed by a dreamily entrancing chorus (“Freezin' the love / Coolin' the pain / Turn on the light again”). Distinguished by a nice vocal by Ayres, the ballad “Is This a Wrong Turn” sounds like something one could imagine Depeche Mode's Martin Gore tackling. Ayres' other vocal spotlight, “Your God,” is as satisfying, especially when the vocal receives such lovely support from his plucked cello and bowed strings. “Pumping Up the Whisper” seethes with a raucous fire (much of it derived from the wailing electric cello) that would have been welcome in larger doses on the album. Best of all, the nine-minute closer, “Undulations,” is a largely instrumental meditation that's closest in spirit to Ayres' solo recordings and all the more satisfying for being so.
Perhaps Mask is his attempt to gain a larger audience via a more commercial project than his solo work has generated—everyone's gotta eat, after all, and no one need apologize for that. If Technopia does help broaden awareness of his work, all the better, though it would be a shame if new listeners were to be mislead into thinking of Mask as representative of Ayres when his much more artistically satisfying work is available under his own name. I can't help but think that when at some future date his entire discography is assessed, Technopia will be seen as more of a footnote than an essential part.