Thursday 15 July 2021

Ison - Aurora (2021)

Country: Sweden
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Jun 2021
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Continuing my exploration of post-rock, here's a whole bunch more people I haven't come across until now. Well mostly. Ison used to be a duo, combining the multi-instrumental talents of Daniel Änghede and the vocal talents of Heike Langhans on three prior albums. Änghede used to be in Crippled Black Phoenix, but wasn't last year when I chose their new album Ellengæst as my November 2020 Album of the Month. Langhans still sings for Draconian and was on their 2020 album, Under a Godless Veil, but she's no longer part of Ison, thus turning it into a solo project with guest vocalists. There are eight of them, each of them a female vocalist who's entirely new to me, even the one who's based right here in Tempe, Arizona.

What fascinates me is how so many of these musicians work in metal subgenres, given that this isn't a metal album. Crippled Black Phoenix are inveterate genre hoppers whose sound includes metal, while Draconian play gothic doom. Cammie Gilbert, from Texas, fronts prog metal band Oceans of Slumber. Gogo Melone, from Greece, sings for Aeonian Sorrow, who play a brand of funeral doom. Carline van Roos is the Belgian vocalist for French atmospheric doom band Lethian Dreams. Each of these three bands had releases out last year that I didn't know to check out. I won't make that mistake again.

This album is going to serve as a real rabbit hole for me, because all these singers are fascinating and prompt me to check out their other work, not just those above who usually sing metal. Lisa Cuthbert, who's Irish but based in Berlin, has been a backing vocalist for the Sisters of Mercy and has supported Marillion on tour. Sylvaine, who's Norwegian, has supported Alcest in South America. Tara VanFlower performs with Lycia, a darkwave outfit right here in Arizona. Vila is Finnish and has a bunch of albums out solo. That leaves circle&wind, which is the stage name of German artist Viola Petsch. I have a heck of a lot of material to explore.

But let's start with this. Vila is up first on a song called Jupiter and it sets the stage wonderfully. It's a chill piece from the outset, gentle synths and ambience suggesting that not only isn't this metal, it's a long way from rock too. However, it builds over its nine and a half minutes, a guitar showing up after a couple of them and a real escalation kicking in around halfway. Vila may be from Finland but she has a Celtic sound here, not singing so much as soaring majestically above the instrumentation. She does sing words but I'm not sure how often, because it really doesn't matter. We're not listening to a story, she's lending another instrument to those Änghede plays and that trend holds throughout the album.

Waves follows Jupiter a little too closely, right down to the five minute escalation and the nine minute build. Cammie Gilbert has a serious voice that's about three times bigger than she is, but she keeps it notably restrained during the first half, gradually building it during the second. Everything here feels like it ties to intensity play, but it's all done on both a grand scale and with incredible patience. This is not an album that's willing to indulge immediate need but it delivers inexorably in its own time, like it provides us with the connection to the universe that the sample in Retrograde promises to each of us.

The shortest piece here is just under seven minutes and the longest almost reaches twelve. The latter is Meridian, with an excellent vocal from Sylvaine, and it may be the most patient of them all. It's not flash at any point but it's delightful throughout. It's one of my favourites, that's for sure, though it's pipped by Celestial, which adds back intensity play, along with a subtly more overt delivery from Gogo Malone. In a similar way, circle&wind pierces through the music a little more with her soaring parts.

All these singers are lending their vocal instruments, even those far enough above the music that we can catch lyrics. I've listened through in entirety a few times now and I haven't once been able to focus on any of the words; the most obvious come from what I presume is are a variety of samples from an entirely science fictional self improvement guide but they're bland in their generic message. It's easy to tell Cammie Gilbert from Sylvaine and both from Vila, for instance, if we pay attention, but all their approaches are similar and, over the generous seventy minutes this album runs, they merge into one voice providing variations on an ethereal theme.

And that's where I keep ending up, a consistent album created by one man who sets the tone and lets eight intriguingly talented women interpret it without too much divergence. It's elegant and epochal and timeless and beautiful and it improves the quality of the day. Can that be a bad thing?

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