Sarah Kirkland Snider: Unremembered
New Amsterdam Records

There are similarities between Snider's 2010 work Penelope and Unremembered—both are polyphonic vocal-based song cycles of ravishing design—but there's a key difference, too: in contrast to the grand conceptual scope of Penelope with all its attendant mythology, Unremembered exudes a more intimate quality when each of its thirteen neo-classical songs is rooted in a personalized poetry setting by Nathaniel Bellows. And with vocalists Padma Newsome (Clogs), DM Stith, and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) augmented by a chamber-sized orchestra (conducted by Edwin Outwater), Unremembered proves to be rich in instrumental colour yet never so grandiose that it loses that intimacy.

Four years in the making, the project began when Snider, responding to Roomful of Teeth's request that she compose music for the group, contacted Bellows to write some poems for her to set to music, after which five pieces about his childhood in rural Massachusetts arrived. When more texts followed (and with the commission for Roomful of Teeth satisfied), Snider began to visualize an entire album-length song cycle oriented around Bellows' poems. In keeping with a musical score whose moods range from plaintive to harried, not all of the childhood memories are bucolic: the blood spilt at a slaughterhouse is one not easily forgotten, nor the memory of a young girl intent on hanging herself in the woods. Bellows's texts suggest that while certain memories are a well we pleasurably return to throughout our lives, others haunt us with experiences we'd choose to forget if it were possible.

There are moments on the album that remind me of Liam Singer, Genesis (circa Nursery Crime or Foxtrot), and Florence and The Machine, though such associations probably say more about me than Snider. Certainly no one would conclude that she was listening to such artists as she composed Unremembered; perhaps that range of eclecticism naturally emerged as she fashioned particular musical moods to fit Bellows' texts. Regardless, Snider's lyrical and oft-rapturous music is characterized by immense poise and sophistication.

With wordless vocalizing the first sound heard, “Prelude” immediately immerses the listener within a magical soundworld; embellished with oboes and strings, Snider's ethereal music effortlessly evokes the aura of an alternate reality. DM Stith makes his first appearance on “The Estate” and though his distinctive voice is at first something of an acquired taste, one gradually becomes acclimatized to it. Here and elsewhere, Snider's artful handling of vocal counterpoint and orchestral writing impresses mightily, and one comes away from the piece struck by her ability to create a miniature vocal symphony within the parameters of a four-minute time-frame.

One could easily mistake the high-pitched vocal in “The Barn” for early Peter Gabriel, and the song's agitated mien and almost overblown presentation isn't unlike the kind of over-the-top arrangement one might have heard a ‘70s prog-rock band attempt on one of its own concept albums. Abetted by a tumultuous backing of strings, celeste, and drums, Worden tears into her vocal with such passion on “The Witch” that comparisons to Florence Welch (of Florence and The Machine) would seem to be as inevitable as they are unavoidable. Not all of the pieces are pitched at such a harrowing level of intensity: the restrained “The Speakers” is as arresting as a more grandiose setting in the way it merges the upward swoop of its strings with the vocalists' delicate supplications.

Examples of Snider's invention abound, from the interweaving woodwinds at the start of “The Guest” to the glorious vocal counterpoint that recurs throughout. Adding to the work's impact, the settings aren't designed so that the three vocalists are featured on separate songs; instead, they typically appear together, with one at the forefront accompanied by the others or two of them alternating between verses; Snider's writing for the vocalists is, in other words, as resplendent as the work's instrumental design. Like a Grimm Fairy Tale rendered into musical form, Unremembered presents a world rooted in childhood experiences that on the surface appears innocent enough yet discloses upon closer inspection a murkier realm beneath its skin. As fully realized a work as Penelope, this hour-long follow-up reaffirms Snider's stature as a modern composer of significant note and accomplishment.

September 2015