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Heather Leigh
I Abused Animal Joseph Burnett , November 16th, 2015 15:49

For an album that is, in essence, very stripped-down and direct (one woman singing and playing the lap steel guitar), I Abused Animal is possibly the most mysterious one I've heard all year. Heather Leigh hails from the coal mining part of West Virginia, but has lived in Scotland for many a year, and has somehow managed to coalesce the most primordial, intangible elements of both locales' musical tradition into a work of art that is wholly unique as to defy such pat words as "folk", "noise" or "drone". I Abused Animal is all of those and none of them and, whilst it draws on the free improvisation tradition she has long been associated with through collaborations with the likes of Peter Brötzmann, Thurston Moore and Chris Corsano, it transcends them entirely in ways that are unexpected and mystifying.

The title track, which opens the album, is a case in point. Taking cues from the verbal folk tradition when songs were transmitted between individuals, even generations by listening to, rather than reading, music, Leigh displays the full range of her impressive vocal power by singing a capella, bolstered only by the shadow of her own multi-tracked voice as it forms a wordless ghostly choir behind her. The lyrics are opaque and somewhat sinister, a tale of regretted violence, Leigh's voice wracked with emotion as the song develops gently into a haunted murder ballad that could have just as easily been beamed out of 1880s Appalachia as 13th century Highland wilds. The lap steel makes its first appearance on 'Quicksand', a few muted, plucked notes looping around Leigh as she stretches her vocals into the upper register. Where a lot of footage of Leigh's concert performances, notably as part of Annihilating Light with ex-Skullflower guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn, show her coaxing cascades of vicious noise and feedback from her guitar, here it is decidedly secondary to the vocals, another nod to folk tradition, even if her playing is very much a minimalist style all of Leigh's own. It's hard to describe how radiant her voice is on 'Quicksand', and indeed across I Abused Animal, for there are few comparable singers, but at a push would suggest a cross between Anne Briggs at her most ethereal with the power and poise of Jessika Kenney.

I Abuse Animal is deceptively, almost surreptitiously expansive, the apparent minimalism of 'Quicksand' building gently into a spacey ballad with echoes of Popol Vuh or electric Dylan at his most esoteric, but these shades of added texture require multiple listens to discern. Leigh unleashes the sturm und drang on the third track, 'All That Heaven Allows', a Haino-esque solo rocker that neatly juxtaposes her crystalline voice with hard-riffing, bluesy guitar mulch. It's probably the most superficially "American" of the tracks, with its nods to electric folk and the blues, whilst also evoking that Englishman in Scottish exile, Richard Youngs. The most intimate track is the brief 'Passionate Reluctance' (has there ever been a better evocation of love and lust's many contradictions?), another solo vocal piece, which fades into the exquisite slow burning noise/folk of 'The Return'. Here, all rock archetypes are stripped away in favour of a churning, repetitive non-riff that slowly plods forwards as Leigh's voice swoops and soars overhead. When she hits the high notes, I guarantee shivers will follow. For a final flourish, Leigh returns to more easily identifiable territory with another emotionally wrenching electric ballad, 'Fairfield Fantasy', a watery, warped journey into imagined realms, with her lap steel wavering between country twang and Hawaiian surf. It's a fittingly bizarre, sparse and yet somehow multilayered masterpiece of subtlety.

Like the entirety of I Abused Animal, 'Fairfield Fantasy' defies categorisation and genre conventions, starting somewhere in the folk territory of a Judee Sill or Karen Dalton, but slowly, imperceptibly edging towards the unknown and the mysterious. Even hundreds of listens in, I can't quite put my finger on why I Abused Animal is so wondrous, but it is, and Heather Leigh has emerged from centuries of tradition and the improv world she is most closely associated with, to deliver a work of art that exists in a world all of its own.