Myrmyr: The Amber Sea

After making strong impressions on their respective solo releases, Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobsons (aka Darwinsbitch) pool their considerable talents for The Amber Sea, their debut album under the name Myrmyr. The two supplement their own rich instrumental sound (violin, cello, voice, bass, gezhong, piano, harp, accordian, melodica, glockenspiel, and guitar are just some of the sound sources credited to the two) with contributions from a number of Bay Area musicians who add clarinet, trombone, flute, and vibraphone to the material. The album itself is a concept album of sorts that traces the genealogy of amber by drawing connections from it to mythology, Baltic folklore, and geology.

Half of the eight settings feature the duo only, and it's these that capture Myrmyr's electroacoustic meditative sound in its fundamental form. Fittingly, the album begins with two such settings, the first “Jurata,” a haunting invocation that treats Szelag's chanting voice as a lead presence alongside a spectral mass of harmonium, strings, and glassy tones. The setting decompresses briefly into gamelan form before the arrival of “Baltic Winds,” a vivid soundscape the duo conjures using gently clanging bells and bowed tones. Like a macabre fairy tale, the later “Egle's Escape” opts for a dark excursion into vocal folk-chant mystery.

Guests add clarinet, flute, and trombone to “First Seed,” making for a more conventionally through-composed piece that's nevertheless as satisfying as Myrmyr's explorative soundscapes. Piano, cello, violin, trombone, and clarinet are prominently featured in a melancholy setting that's as cinematic as it is classical. Luis Maurette adds his voice to Szelag's in the seaside meditation “Silver Rooster,” which proves haunting despite a sparse arrangement. Ample evidence of the arranging skills the duo developed during their tenure at Mills College (from which they both received MFAs in Electronic Music in 2006) is heard in the album's centerpiece, “The Sea Returns,” which adds nine musicians to Myrmyr's two in an ambitious fifteen-minute ‘conducted improvisation.' After a peaceful ambient beginning of processed tones and piano meander, individual voices of violin, flute, cello, and trombone breathe life into the slowly awakening piece until a loud unison swell erupts in an ecstatic climax. The penultimate “Dancing In Captivity” scales things back in a neo-classical dirge for violin, vibraphone, and harps. Though a ‘classical' dimension is present, The Amber Sea in no way restricts itself to any one genre. Instead, its eight pieces alchemize chamber classical, drone, chant, avant-folk, and experimental elements into an arresting and accomplished hybrid that's inspired by the duo's shared Baltic roots.

March 2010