Devil In The Detail: A Time To Love, A Time To Die By Amor Muere

An album of strings, songs and electronics by a quartet of Mexican women pulls you in with the sweetness of its arrangements before leading you into darker waters, finds Amanda Farah

Photo by Natanael Guzmán

Works can draw you in through a lovely facade. It’s not to say that the introduction isn’t genuine, or that it isn’t a part of the work, but it also is not representative of the whole picture. Additional passes can pull details from dark corners, details that can deepen your understanding, enhance your enjoyment, or completely alter how you respond to that work. A sly humour might reveal itself, or reveal that it’s masking a gloominess. Or all of the above.

Whether or not it’s by some mischievous design, the opening bars of Amor Muere’s a time to love, a time to die lay deceptive ground work. The Mexico City-based quartet’s debut album begins with a simple string arrangement – light and almost jaunty. What follows across the album is a masterfully subtle interplay of strings, electronics, tape manipulation, and field recordings. But throughout the album, they repeatedly pull you in with the suggestion of soft, approachable arrangements that reveal haunting details in their layers.

a time to love, a time to die is as much an experimental album grounded by string arrangements as it is a neo-classical album, its songs unfolding across movements and finding strange new directions through found sounds and manipulations. It’s a record that requires listening with headphones on to fully appreciate all the details. So much in higher frequencies is woven into the fabric of each song – a strand that is both integral to the compositions and could easily be missed without a close listen (or a good stereo). Some of these sounds, however, are at the frequency of a tinnitus hiss, and their consistent presence on the album, albeit in varied forms, fills in blanks and never allows a real silence, which can take an emotional toll.

What makes these songs so stunning is the natural way they are allowed to build up – or break down. With the exception of ‘Shhhh’, there are no abrupt turns; the songs build a kind of chaotic momentum. In ‘Love Dies’, a thudding drum offsets warm, lilting strings, underscoring a steady vocal. The source of the firm control in Camille Mandoki’s voice is clear: “I keep looking out for myself,” she sings. But there is a seemingly innocuous shiver from a high frequency tone at the beginning of ‘Love Dies’ that slowly carries through the song. The expansion of that tone sends the song slowly down a path of unravelling into darker synths and electronic noises, her voice trying all the while to peer above the din.

‘Love Dies’ also exemplifies a wider trend on a time to love, a time to die, in which vocals never really drive the songs. Using the voice as another instrument to add texture is a tried and true stylistic approach, but as part of a broader theme there is something sinister in the way the vocals are persistently swallowed up by the compositions.

Perhaps these disquieting inflections aren’t mean to be so surprising; Amore Muere literally translates to ‘Love Dies’, the motif repeated for the song title. And calling an album a time to love, a time to die does lack some of the subtlety that makes the songs so striking. But despite the heavy-handed titles, the multifaceted intricacies of the songs make sense when held up against their creators: The band itself is born out of the friendship of the women behind it. They collaborated closely to compose and produce the album. Warmth and love are at the root of the project, though that isn’t enough to stop darker emotions from coming to the surface.

More than any composition on a time to love, a time to die, ‘Can we provoke reciprocal reaction’ leads with the false sense of security that it is gentle and soothing and not cloaking something insidious. Opening with a distant synth that could easily play in a vintage haunted house, a percussive rhythm and comical rubberband-twang skip along with pizzicato strings. Indecipherable vocal harmonies carry the song along until the light, bouncing strings take the song to the outro. In the background, an air raid siren picks up momentum, droning along in defiant discomfort. Or perhaps it’s not actually an air raid siren, but following international news over the last month – or really the last year and a half – makes it hard to not interpret something air raid siren-adjacent as such; nor for it not to hit in the pit of your stomach.

But this false sense of security has been there from the beginning. Album opener ‘LA’’s vibrant cello and slightly harmonic violin do not hint at the dense spiral of strings and glitchy electronics that will bring the track to a close. A sub-bass exclamation signals a shift midway through the song without contributing to the rising clamour. Mandoki’s serene, Spanish-language vocals seem to surrender to the noise, dissolving as the electronic elements kick in and pulling the strings further into the background with them.

The only song that is explicitly aggressive is ‘Shhhh’. Following from the slow progression of ‘LA’, the overwhelming dissonance of cello and the scratch of violin on ‘Shhhh’ sound like a disintegration of the previous track. An industrial delay on the percussion escalates from rattling through the din to rattling through your body. With so much of the album suppressing these unsettling moments, the open aggression of ‘Shhhh’ feels like hitting the pressure release valve.

The gradual unfurling of each song is on its greatest display on ‘Violeta y Malva’, the nineteen-minute epic that closes the second half of the album. The song fades in over four slow minutes with high frequency tones and quiet staticky rumbles that mimic the sounds of nighttime. A low electronic warble provides an irregular heartbeat to the evolving sounds: an elfin vocal, a car alarm fading in and out, the odd string instrument cutting through first as a whisper and then with striking clarity. It could have ended on this lighthearted, humourous note, but there is still a final chapter; minutes of operatic serenading are supplanted by a cacophony of spiralling violins and synths and metallic wafts. It forces a reappraisal of the emotional tenor of the song. Does that cricket-chirp quietude that slowly built up the song still feel peaceful when you know that it comes to a harsh end? As with so many aspects of a time to love, a time to die, it’s still very beautiful. It can also be chilling.

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