Phaedra: Blackwinged Night
Phaedra's 2011 debut album The Sea, the inaugural chapter in Ingvild Langgård's projected trilogy, was the recipient of so much critical praise, one would understand if the Oslo, Norway-based singer-composer felt a little bit of apprehension when the time came to tackle the next installment. There's nothing audibly tentative about Blackwinged Night, however, which immerses the listener within a mystical and mythologically oriented dream-folk underworld.
It makes sense that the seven settings on the forty-one-minute release are more incantations than songs, not only because of the musical cycle's underlying concept but because of her background: educated at Oslo's The Academy of Fine Art, Langgård is not only someone who composes music for the stage and screen, she also creates art projects of various kinds and has collaborated with choreographer Ingri Fiksdal and scenographer Signe Becker on the dance performances Orchard Ballads and Night Tripper. If a powerfully theatrical character permeates Blackwinged Night, it's easy to understand why.
Produced by Langgård herself, the album opens with the sound of her agile, crystal-clear voice, certainly a key Phaedra selling-point. With her singing embedded within a dream-like arrangement of strings, sleigh bells, and glockenspiel, “Lightbeam” establishes immediately the folk-medieval tone of her soundworld. The seeming ease with which she navigates the considerable melodic twists and turns of the haunting titular meditation also speaks strongly on behalf of her exceptional vocal abilities, and hearing her impassioned songbird trill glide across the flutes- and strings-enhanced base of “Mend Me” for eleven hypnotic minutes affords one of the album's primary pleasures. It's a remarkable performance, vocal and otherwise.
Though it begins in mysterioso mode, “The Void” eventually reveals itself to be the most accessible and pop-like of the seven settings when a girlish vocal chorus abruptly brightens the otherwise dour mood; with reversed vocals emerging as part of the mix, the song even starts to resemble one of The Knife's more listener-friendly productions. Instruments such as harmonium, omnichord, zither, bass clarinet, and marimba help distinguish the album material and bolster its otherwordly quality; strings also figure heavily into a number of arrangements, a move that bolsters the epic reach of the songs in question. While rich in atmosphere, Langgård's songs show themselves to be more than moodpieces but instead melodically ravishing settings of arresting instrumental makeup.