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Mariel Roberts
Armament Nick Roseblade , February 17th, 2021 09:40

The cello playing of Mariel Roberts is as confounding as it is beautiful, finds Nick Roseblade

For over a decade Mariel Roberts has been a shining light on New York’s experimental scene. Her work with the Arcana Orchestra, Tim Hecker, Patrick Higgins, and Wet Ink show bravery in her playing. Robert’s debut album, 2012’s Nonextraneous Sounds was more than a contemporary cello album. 2017s Cartography pushed things further still, but it only hinted at what was to come. Her latest album Armament is her most accomplished and experimental to date.

Armament is a devastating album. The way Roberts manipulates the cello is beyond captivating. Her technique of playing has a way of making your skin crawl whilst keeping you totally entertained. During ‘Lock’ the tension is excruciating at times. Opening with a series of notes being played as drones rumble underneath, the playing becomes more frantic and fractured, until it sounds like the cello has insects crawling all over it. It’s a wonderful piece of music that confounds the listener. On the surface it’s just cello and electronics, but this is unlike any cello playing I’ve heard for a while.

The album’s lynch pin is ‘Hoard’. For seventeen-and-a-half minutes Roberts creates gentle maelstroms of feedback and noise. These swirl around us disorienting the senses. The final third sounds like a score to a sci-fi film. The tension is ratcheted up through piercing fogs of sounds. In the film, the team has landed on the new planet and are walking about. Things seem ok, but they probably aren’t. What’s that behind that rock? As the team race to look one way we see something move past behind them. Robert’s ability to create these kind of emotions is one of the reasons the album works so well.

At times it is cavernous in its scope. Other times it feels like it’s right inside your head. But it is always devastating. This is probably down to how it was recorded. Each track features an unedited cello performance from Roberts. Her technique ranges from the conventional to just lumping the shit out of it. Both works incredibly well.

‘Arrow’ has an evocative section where it sounds like the bells of a clock are ringing. The question is who are they ringing for? Are they for us, to tell us that the album is in its final moments and the finale is about to commence? Or for Roberts to remind herself that this project is coming to an end and to savour its final push?

This is the beauty of Armament. You never quite know what Roberts is telling us. She gives hints through motifs or tones, but ultimately the album’s meanings are left with us. Having a good day, the album is full of shards of light breaking up the darkness. Having a bad day and it’s an all-consuming, devastating black cloud of doom and despair. Today it’s filled with light and hope. Things might be bleak, but they can also get better. That’s my reading of it today. Tomorrow, who knows…?