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Birds of Passage: This Kindly Slumber
Denovali Records

Though it hardly seems possible, New Zealander Alicia Merz might actually have taken her Birds of Passage project to even greater depths on her third album This Kindly Slumber. Arriving after Without the World and Winter Lady, the aptly titled forty-one-minute collection offers as representative an example of Merz's dreamscaping style as one might hope to find. Welling up from the deep, its seven songs—meditations is more like it—play like long-buried emanations from the unconscious with Merz's soft voice less whispering one's ear than emerging directly from within the psyche. Hers is a delicate music, one rendered more fragile by the ghost-like presentation of her singing, which hovers over the music like some haunted spectre.

In their titles, the opening songs appear to reference David Bowie and Luis Buñuel, though that may be mere coincidence. Certainly no overt reference to Bowie surfaces during “Ashes to Ashes,” which instead reacquaints the listener with Merz's signature blend of hushed vocals and reverberant drones. In the slow plod of its rhythmic lilt and its methodical unveiling, “Belle de jour” conjures a subtly macabre mood of gothic wonder that might have you thinking more of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw than Buñuel's 1967 prostitution-themed film (or the 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel on which it's based).

It's often difficult to to discern the particular ingredients she uses to generate her droning backdrops, though there's a metallic shimmer to them that suggests treated electric guitar is one element at least; there are, however, moments on the album when the guitar presents itself identifiably, and piano is audibly present within “Lonesome Tame.” It can also sometimes be a challenge to decipher the words Merz is singing when her delivery is so heavily shrouded in mist and reverb, but that's never a crippling deficiency when the overall sonorous effect registers so powerfully.

Whereas some pieces are closer in style to ethereal vocal-based drones, others are more conventionally song-like. The enveloping quality of songs such as “Stranger” and “Take my Breath” hints that the closest analogue to Birds of Passage is Grouper, as the respective musics Alicia Merz and Liz Harris produce share certain qualities, a gothic folk aura and entrancing melodic command foremost among them. The album's culmination arrives with “Lonesome Tame,” a ten-minute, reverb-drenched meditation of affectingly mournful character that distills all of the album's strengths and sonic gestures, instrumental and vocal, into a single setting. Listeners already familiar with Merz's previous Birds of Passage output will warm to This Kindly Slumber without any difficulty whatsoever. For anyone coming to her music for the first time, the album provides an excellent entry-point.

February 2014