Of all the new age therapies available right now, surely one would stick with those that involved sleeping. Some readers might think you can just start kipping, but that's a mistake: in order to properly plunge into the dream world, one has to move like a tightrope walker between sleep and wake, so one can reach the mind state called lucid dream. That's where the dreams that you remember when you wake up are. And right there, on the exact border of the two worlds, is where Julia Shammas Holter's new album sits.
Though we've already seen that labels don't stick on our heroine, the dream-pop tag is perfect for her: this album will be loved by those who regularly listen to Cocteau Twins, to the Kate Bush of “The Dreaming” or, more recently, Maria Minerva. But those are influences rather than similar artists. There's no trace of the ingredients we heard on her previous LP, the acclaimed “Tragedy” (Leaving Records, 2011): a bit of Blixa Bargeld / Bad Seeds here, a pinch of Laurie Anderson there, and even a touch of, erm, Enya. Everything on “Ekstasis” sounds like a new language: unique and much more personal, composition and production-wise. While “Tragedy” was conceived as avant-garde music for classical theatre, much in the vein of genius Harry Partch (who, 60 years ago, also put music to the Greek Classics with extravagant instrumentation), “Ekstasis” is a pop record with structures that seem altered. Just as dreams alter our reality, they are whimsically and suddenly transformed, playing with our sense of time. “Moni Mon Amie”, for example, starts like a candid little French pop song, only to lose itself after the first verse in a psychedelic lullaby that's repeated over and over again. Similarly “Marienbad” sounds like two songs sung by choirs consisting of several Julia Holters, separated from each other by a minimalist moment reminiscent of Steve Reich's vocal works.
The change of sound with regards to its predecessor is impressive. Cole M. Greif-Neill, producer of Nite Jewel, has much to do with that - transforming the songs that were originally pop. If you hear the recordings Holter made for California radio station KDVS, you'll notice that she's not sniffy about traditional pop, covering Roxy Music and Crowded House. It also sheds light on how three of the tracks from this album have been adorned, parting from a conventional song structure. In general, the sound is defined by the manipulation of the voices and synthesisers: listen, for example, to the gliding “Boy In The Moon”, very much in the vein of German cosmic music from the seventies, with layers of keyboards and very hypnotic vocals. But not only that: the influence of medieval music, linked with folk and classical music, can be felt throughout the album. Few avant-garde pop writers have dared to do anything with this music; I for one can only think of Ryuichi Sakamoto and his Danceries Ensemble (on those excellent records that mixed Medieval and Renaissance songs from Occitania, Spain, Italy and the Okinawa Court with compositions by the Japanese artist). Furthermore, there are even influences from John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy's modal jazz on some of the songs.
Regarding the lyrics, in interviews Holter talks about literary and artistic references as diverse as Albert Lord's book “The Singer Of Tales”, stories from the Balkan region and illustrated Medieval manuscripts. However, to the untrained ear, her words evoke images memory has deleted, or which only appear in dreams. On “In The Same Room”- within which the intro sounds like one of those tracks on Sublime Frequencies' South-East Asia compilations - the recurring phrase is “I can’t recall that face but I want to”: someone trying to remember a face they forgot. It doesn't get more dream-pop than this. Other lyrics are more emotional, like “Goddess Eyes II”, a less robotic reprise of the track on “Tragedy”, where the line “I can see you but my eyes are not supposed to cry” sounds warmer and less worrying. There are even some Zen allusions: “This is not the quietness, this is ekstasis / This is not expensive, this is the quietness", she says on “This Is Ekstasis” - a labyrinthine song of almost nine minutes that sometimes sounds like a morbid cabaret, and sometimes like a medieval polyphony. Ambiguous mind states: nothing is what it seems on this album, like in the dream world. So we return to “Ekstasis” over and over again, to marvel in our confusion.