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Sallows Ed Gillett , April 8th, 2015 07:58

I'm not normally one for the tacky clichés of love at first sight, but I can make exceptions: there are undoubtedly times when I've met someone, or heard the first notes of a record, and immediately understood that something wonderful and serendipitous is happening. Sallows, the debut album from Toronto-based Anamai (otherwise known as Anna Mayberry of noise-punkers HSY), is one of those records.

On the surface, it might be tough to explain such a profound reaction. Sallows certainly doesn't mess too much with pre-existing formulas: sombre, low-tuned electric guitar and hushed multi-tracked vocals unspool delicately into pools of reverb; the progress is glacial throughout, the atmosphere morose. The most immediate reference point is the work of Liz Harris/Grouper, who does similarly wonderful and dolorous things with much the same musical ingredients.

And yet while Harris' influence is clearly present, along with that of the Cocteau Twins and other mid-80s 4AD acts, closer listening reveals Sallows to be unique enough to avoid suffering from those comparisons, or coming across like a retread. Above all, it benefits from a feeling of proximity and directness: where Harris' voice is murky and distant, lost in the fog, Mayberry cuts through the gloom forcefully. The guitar parts have a similarly punchy bluesiness to them, albeit at funereal pace: where Harris and others thrive on the ambiguous or ethereal, Mayberry goes for the jugular.

This balancing act between the fleshy and the vaporous benefits from beautifully nuanced and sympathetic production by Dave Psutka, whose solo output under the name Egyptrixx treads a conceptually similar line between ghostly washes of synth noise and oppressive bass weight. His superb 2013 album A/B Til Infinity combines gruesomely propulsive techno with richly glossy drones, and remains one of the most bafflingly under-appreciated electronic records of recent years. Since then, follow-up album Transfer Of Energy (Feelings Of Power) and his forays into digitally-augmented post-punk with Hiawatha have demonstrated a startling breadth of skills, all crushed steel and sinewy textures.

His work on Sallows is even more intriguing: where Psutka's other releases have been high-resolution and powerful whatever idiom he's working in, here the sound is deliciously restrained and inviting. Limpid splashes of spring reverb and tape delay cloak Mayberry's guitar chords, teetering on the edge of feedback and merging with layers of shifting, softly metallic drones. The effect is simultaneously becalming and impassive, as inscrutable as a desert landscape.

Mayberry's voice sits in the middle, surrounded by the production but never overwhelmed by it. Multi-tracked throughout, her vocal harmonies loop around each other deftly, her phrasing and delivery strongly reminiscent of Joanna Newsom in places. Again though, there's enough about Sallows to avoid it feeling too beholden to its influences. Mayberry's voice is anchored by wordless, breathy coos rather than Newsom's idiosyncratic flutters, and capable of a quiet and uncompromising menace. She makes Sallows feel lived-in and direct, its emotional impact unvarnished and hard-earned.

The album's lyrics mirror this, dealing less in knotty metaphors than in direct gut-punches. Opening track 'Lucia' sets the tone ("You let me down sometimes, and only I know how"), before the album's most bruising moment arrives on 'Abris'. Against a backdrop of almost impossibly wistful harmonies, Mayberry makes oblique reference to losing someone in the depths of winter, and asserts that "with one word, I could change your mind". Her defiance sounds hollow though, as if she doesn't quite believe the words as she sings them. A brief cadence, a barely-audible sigh: "Yeah, we'll go on without it" she shrugs, her resignation utterly heart-breaking.

Elsewhere, Mayberry's voice beguiles and unsettles. 'Black Crow' is a blues for dimly-lit carparks and electricity substations, its bleak drones and reverberant drums perfectly augmented by Mayberry's keening and wordless calls. 'Dirt' is as murky as its name suggests, and perhaps the album's high point: "I won't be your brother" she mutters with grim resilience, "I can't recall all the melodies like I used to". The song grinds to a halt amid rasping moans and discordant clangs of guitar, as if clogged with mulch. As the album winds to a close, it feels like Mayberry is returning this music to the same waterlogged soil she dug it from.

In all honesty, part of me worries a little that I've become too fond of Sallows: that for whatever reason I've listened to it with the same uncritical ear I'd reserve for the work of a close friend. And yet maybe that's part of its charm: with Sallows, Mayberry and Psutka have crafted something deeply human and eerily, beautifully contradictory, like meeting someone you already know for the very first time.