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Album Of The Week

Mad World: Julia Holter’s Aviary
William Doyle , October 25th, 2018 10:24

On Julia Holter’s brilliant and timely new album, traditions and structures are overturned, the apocalypse feels imminent, and there are waves of euphoria among the chaos. Sound familiar?

Julia Holter has lost her mind. But it’s okay, you probably have too. Over the past two years, you’ve likely spent a large portion of your time entranced by more apocalyptic events and their analyses than you’d like to admit. It’s a maddening and frightening time, and it’s easy to view Aviary, Holter’s first studio album since 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness, through the filter of that same madness.

The near-constant onslaught of opening track ‘Turn The Light On’, with its scraping strings and torrential drums, evokes that apocalypse mindset across four relentless minutes; Holter’s voice swoops in atop the chaos, soaring and completely uncaged. But while this album might be informed by present-day horror, it is not merely a window onto those events. Out of the rubble of that opening track, Holter builds an absolute castle of an album; Aviary is a fortress for listeners – a refuge awaits if you can negotiate its drawbridge of harmony and dissonance.

Holter’s records have often been self-contained worlds with their own strange realities. Within its lo-fi arcadian splendour, 2012’s Ekstasis had a similar idiosyncrasy to Aviary, perhaps limited by its bedroom-sounding production. Working with producer Cole MGN on 2013’s Loud City Song widened Holter’s sonic scope, allowing moments of real claustrophobia and discomfort to wrestle with breathtaking ethereal beauty. These albums evoked whole worlds but with an economy and restraint bolstered by their strong melodic sensibility and unusual ideas of arrangement and lyricism.

Aviary, though, is an astonishing exercise in expansion and impulse. Over its 90 minute runtime, structure and traditionalism are continuously overturned. Its dense world mixes noise and melody into regularly thrilling moments, from the staccato stomps of ‘Whether’ to the haze of ‘Voce Simul’ where glittering harp runs climb into the ether and layers of Holter’s voice stack up into a tremendous climax. The two versions of ‘I Shall Love’ on the album are some of the most genuinely euphoric moments of Holter’s career; their defiant rallying cries crescendo and repeat as though they could go on forever.

Where Have You In My Wilderness faithfully stuck to pop structures and verse-chorus-verse dynamics, Aviary appears through-composed, as though its songs were written purely according to whatever felt like the right thing to do next, and not dictated by any of Holter’s more traditionalist habits. This doesn’t make it a difficult listen, though – this is an album steeped in beauty, a celebration of sound.

There are moments that may be uncomfortable for some, such as the extended dissonant passages found on tracks like ‘Chaitius’ and ‘Everyday Is An Emergency’, but they don’t simply evoke disharmony. Their microtonal differences in pitch are some of the many spaces carved out on this album, ready for the listener to crawl inside.

In Aviary’s labyrinthine structures, the opportunity to get lost in sound is more pronounced than on Holter’s previous work – and it seems to have been written that way, too. In a recent interview with DIY Holter explained that her response to worldly chaos left her wanting to “jump into a sea of synthesizer and swim around”; most of the songs here emerge from synthesizer and vocal improvisations. The album is full of cathartic expression, singing and producing sound without restraint, without feeling the need to communicate anything directly.

Take, for instance, ‘Les Jeux To You’, the album’s late moment of rhythmic stability and injection of energy, where over a sudden and incongruous drum machine Holter clamours: “I see! I no! I yes! I you! I ace! I hi! I say! I low! I run! I fall! I can! I true! I fool! I fog! I bad! I blue!”; or ‘Chaitius’, in which her softly whispered, barely intelligible spoken words playfully bounce around the stereo field. Holter’s lyrics are usually a mix of outside influences and wider context, but here they’re more like a collage of words made to increase the density of the world Holter has created.

Holter has described Aviary as “the cacophony of the mind in a melting world”, and it’s easy to feel that mania in its erratic structures and fleeting absurdity. But very often those segments bloom into long and sustained areas of beauty. The thing is, neither the harmony nor the ugliness is given more prominence – they are both valid states and one will always lead to the other. This cyclical nature is inevitable, and analogous with our own existence; everything is impermanent, and this is the only constant. As Holter puts it at the start of ‘I Shall Love 2’: “That is all, that is all / There is nothing else.”

With the world as maddening as it is, a growing number of artists are using music as a battleground for social justice, a place for valuable political outcry. But as Holter brilliantly displays on Aviary, music built solely on impulse and improvisation, music without explicit political content, is as valid and vital for our survival as anything that deals with those horrors more directly. To create a record that envelopes us in its own logic is to allow us to imagine a new world beyond the turmoil of what surrounds us, and perhaps this is the most utopian idea of all.