Album Review: Clara Engel- Looking-Glass Fire

 

ALBUM REVIEW:

 

 

 

Clara Engel

 

 

 

Looking-Glass Fire

 

 

9.5/10.0

 

 

 

Looking-Glass Fire is available via:

http://claraengel.bandcamp.com/album/looking-glass-fire

 


TRACK LISTING:

Violetta is a Mad Bird9.4

Lesser Known God9.5

Your Bones9.6

Be Good9.5

A Pound of Flesh (in Particulate Shards)9.6

My Beloved’s Pulse9.6

 

STAND OUT TRACK:

Your Bones

 

RELEASED:

16th June, 2014

 

ALL SONGS WRITTEN AND PERFORMED BY:

Clara Engel

VOICE, ELECTRIC GUITAR, ORGAN, PIANO, XYLOPHONE, PERCUSSION:

Clara Engel

BASS:

Mitchell Girio

ENGINEERED, MIXED AND MASTERED BY:

Mitchell Girio at Slaughterhouse 754

 

GENRES:

Folk Blues, Folk Poetry

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Toronto’s music laureate has built herself an incredible reputation (over the last decade). Clara Engel weaves mesmeric poetry: her voice is direct and certain; the songs scenic and utterly puisant. Looking-Glass Fire is her latest, tantalising move.

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THIS year has borne witness to some truly spectacular and diverse forms of music.

Whether British-born or international, a multitude and myriad of genres and styles has come under my focus. One of the things that impresses me most about musicians (mainly new musicians) is their tenacity, work-rate and determination. Many musicians I am in regular contact with face constant struggles: putting out their music takes time and money (they often do not possess); promotion and studio time needs to be booked- third parties and outside forces often provide huge- and somewhat unnecessary- barriers. The most rewarding thing to see is when these musicians overcome the proclivities and discrimination that the music industry can provide- and go on to make some wonderful, life-affirming music. Too often the rigours of the industry take their toll on eager shoulders: those that are prepared to weather and ride every storm are the ones that have the last laugh. In the U.K., there seems to be a class divide in music: many have it easier (than they deserve) and fly through life- without having too much talent on display- whereas there is a large group that have the ammunition and potential- they often spend years chasing personal satisfaction and reward. In the U.S. and Canada- I am sure there is this same kind of hardship- there is  a sense of unstifled output is coming through. The North American artists I have assessed- as well as being tireless and hard working- seem to be having an easier time of things: somehow they do not face the same sanctions and struggles that British-born acts do. As a result, acts of Canada and the U.S. are showcasing a great range of sounds; the frequency of their releases is increased- a greater sense of productivity and unconstrained alacrity is making its voice know. My featured act for today is amongst the busiest and most dependable acts in North America: her output is regular and spectacular; her unique and enlivening sound has seen many critics and listeners flock to her feet. Let me introduce her:

Clara Engel is an independent, multi-faceted artist and musician based in Toronto, Canada. She has independently recorded and released nine albums, and has collaborated with musicians and artists from the UK, Germany, Brazil, Canada, Turkey, and the US. Engel’s music has been played on Italian National Radio, as well as BBC Radio 2, making it onto Tom Robinson’s show “BBC Introducing” on several o…ccasions. Record labels Vox Humana (UK) and Backwards Music (IT) have released Engel’s work on vinyl. Some artists with whom Engel has collaborated: Aidan Baker (Musician, Berlin/Toronto), Larkin Grimm (Musician, NYC), Bruno Capinan (Musician, Brazil/Toronto), Stefan Orschel-Read (Fashion designer, UK), Nick Fox-Gieg (Animator, Toronto/NYC), Ebrahel Lurci (Artist, Turkey). Engel recently wrote and recorded a soundtrack for the short film “We Are Not Here” directed by Aaron Mirkin (2013), and released a new album “Ashes and Tangerines,” on December 6th, 2013.”

This impressive bioragphy is not the end of the story: Engel has been even busy (can you believe it?): her music has been used in films and productions, and some pretigious and high-profile avenues have been keen to have Engel contribute to their cause. The last few years have been a whirlwind of work, ambition and planning; Engel has been working her socks off:

My music has been played on Italian National Radio and the BBC. I scored a film this year “We Are Not Here” – which won best experimental short at TISFF, and was screened as part of the Clermont-Ferrand Festival in France. I sang on the title track of Aidan Baker’s recent release, Already Drowning: http://aidanbaker.bandcamp.com/album/already-drowning which BlogTO cited as one of the best albums of 2013. Vox Humana (UK) released my 1st vinyl EP in 2011: http://voxhumanarecords.bandcamp.com. Backwards Music (IT) released one of my albums as a full-length LP in 2012: http://www.backwards.it/releases/bw03.html

My diatribe (pertaining to the nature of the music industry in the U.K.) may be a little overheated, yet there seems to be some truth in the matter. Engel has managed to produce a great deal of music over the last decade: albums and E.P.s have been unveiled (and met with acclaim)- it seems that her ambition and focus knows no limits or bounds. Kudos and paen has come in from artists, critics are poets throughout the U.S. and U.K.- international ears have been mesmerised also- Engel has amassed a huge and impressive following.

If one were to examine Looking-Glass Fire– and try to compare it with previous works- then you can see a development. New subjects and inspirations have made their way into the music; fresh and vibrant stories run throughout the album, yet for the most part, this much is clear: it is business as usual. Having recorded a multitude of records, Engel’s confidence and determinations are at their very peak: she has a talent and singular voice you are hard-pressed to beat. Her individual and stunning styles are all in tact and flying high: perhaps there is a growth in maturity since her early albums- this is only natural. I Keep On Trying (released in March of last year) and Ashes & Tangerines (released in April) are both packed with punch, beauty and nuance: Engel’s talent for wordplay and projection make songs such as Hope Is Heavy and Harvest, modern-day classics. Fledgling discs such as Cara Engel and Jump Of Flame have plenty of genius and captivating poetry within: I would say Engel’s abilities and talent have sharpened and augmented. On a few songs- across Looking-Glass Fire– she keeps things basic and sparse: on the whole, she presents full-bodied and mini-opera offerings- the confidence in her own voice is huge, and it seems that she is picking up inspiration and influence from all different corners. The core sound and quality control is as high as ever, but it seems that Engel is at her peak: the last year has seen an impressive output and determination- her creative juices are flowing with unabatable force. For those without knowledge of our heroine, I would suggest starting from the beginning: seeing and hearing where our Engel came from; following it through to the present-day. You can see the evolution and development from album to album: the Canadian never becomes resigned or rests on her laurels. Having produced such an impressive body of work, Engel is very much in love with music: you can hear the passion and fervency on every track of Looking-Glass Fire.

It is fairly tricky to compare Engel with anybody else: such is the idiosyncrasy of her music, it stands on its own. Fans and adorers of music’s finest ever poets- Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen etc.- will appreciate Engel’s wordsmith credentials: she can weave compelling tableau and oblique wonder with the best of them. Her voice is possibly the most distinctive aspect of her music- it is hard to imagine another singer when hearing Engel’s vocalisations. In terms of the overall sound, recollections of Bjork’s finest moments come through: there is that same mix of dark Folk and natural world soundscape. Touches of Edgar Allan Poe and David Lynch’s strange underworld comes through in some numbers (such as Looking-Glass’ Lesser Known God); delicate and evocative compositions recall legends Kate Bush, Edith Piaf, Captain Beffheart and Tori Amos- as well as current acts Dry the River, Antony and the Johnson, and Alt-J. British poet Jeremy Reed claimed Engel’s voice “visually retrieves an inner landscape converted by breadth into the rock equivalent of poetry“- going onto claim that it was “unapologetic in its disclosure” and “so sure of its direction“. It is the certainty, confidence and openness that defines Engel’s music: if you are seeking something with an honest soul and spellbinding potential- then our Canadian heroine is the artist for you.

Delicacy and sway opens Violetta is a Mad Bird. Engel’s voice swoons with hymnal regard: not only creating an emotional atmosphere, but ensuring the words are vivid and effectively make their presence felt. Oblique and the surreal (“I pick flowers as they bloom out of her eyes“) mix with observation and matter-of-fact (“the weather is harsh & the weather is mild“). The evocativeness and strange beauty of the foreground is wonderfully underpinned by the composition: the slow-moving and creeping electric guitar haunts and implores. You cannot help but to imagine and speculate (as the song progresses): the strength of the words compels you to picture and dream. Violetta (our mad bird) “can’t hold a grudge or forget how to fly“; one wonders whether an actual bird is being described- or if it is a metaphor for life itself (or refers to a particular person). There is such a dream-like and somnambulistic quality to proceedings, one is powerless to resist its charms. Engel employs relatively few words, yet shows an incredible talent for economy and potency- each line manages to strike you in a different way. Our heroine’s vocal projection does not change too much: her voice has operatic potential- it is powerful and full-bloodied, yet she does not need to belt or overwhelm- and puts me in mind of the likes of P.J. Harvey and Kate Bush (talents that know just how to use their voices to dramatic effect). As the indelible images flood into your mind, Engel has certain desires: “ferry me across the ocean of looking-glass fire/and along the writhing road to paradise.” There is a passionate rise and sense of increased drama towards the song’s end. Engel sings of a “sweet bouquet with fangs” and “a wish granted at a shackling pace“: the carnivorous and foreboding images are married alongside  affirmation (“o’ this gift of life“)- given extra weight and majesty due to the moonlight guitar. With a final introduction of the chorus, the track comes to the end- marking the end of a stunning opening number. Lesser Known God is a different beast indeed- the word ‘beast’ seems very apt. Whereas its predecessor was a gentle and soft affair, here events show their teeth. Twisted and wolverine guitar brings the intro. to life: there is a Grunge-like quality to the sparse (yet heavy) guitar- it stalks and beckons. Engel’s voice is darker and more forceful: there is growl and gravel in her tones; her deployment is much more direct and pugnacious. The entire track is built around a mere few lines: the opening half consists of the lines “hey princess/would you burn down your house for me?” and “hey princess/would you lay down your life for me?” There are shadows and storm lingering: Engel’s vocals have a demon-like quality to them- it is quite a gripping performance. Our lesser-known god has anonymity and mystery; when speaking to her subject, Engel claims “you’ve probably never heard of me“- the malevolence and sly grin that comes in enforce and bolster the words. Offering some form of respite is Your Bones. Engel gives her most seductive and charming performance (to this point) on the track: there are still dark embers and odd images, yet a sense of allure comes through. Our heroine wants the snow to drift in, and her subject to disrobe: before she takes him on, she wants “to see your bones” and “see you shiver“. Again, the composition revolves around simple (yet emotive) strings: they are plucked and elegantly delineate-d giving the overall mood a stillness and aching beauty. Engel claims she has “swept this floor/more than a thousand times before“; once more, you begin to wonder and imagine- and try to see what our heroine is describing. The lyrics here are amongst the finest on the album: lines such as “here we are you and I, snowblind/reflect me in your dilated eyes” means everything and nothing at all- it is a stunning thought that shows just why Engel is such a celebrated lyricist. Whether referring to a love (current or past) or the fictional, you get a real sense of conviction and honesty: Engel sounds spellbound and awash in her own thoughts. Against the backdrop of “rosy fire“, black sunlight and “a great white lily“, the embers begin to die: another hugely memorable track has been unfurled. The antepenultimate track arrives in the form of Be Good. Events turn towards more oppressive and dislocated themes: the spectral and child-like xylophone opening is a brief window of sunlight and refrain. Engel’s voice never becomes heavy-handed or aggressive; there is a sense of calm and serene tenderness as she sings: “be good/to your brother/he won’t follow you forever/and there’s too many strangers/in this world.” The composition has similar tones to that of Your Bones: strings are delicately played to allow the song’s etherealeness to take full effect. It appears that Engel’s lyrical adventurousness and effectiveness knows no bounds: the words are stronger even than Your Bones. Our heroine claims that her wound “is my shield now“- someone is pushing against her and causing pain. As the song progresses, Be Good becomes more evocative and striking. Engel is the fox in the meadow; she tears the flesh “from a swallow“: the bitterest feathers, it seems, “linger on“. The track’s melody and incredible vocal performance are almost equal with the words themselves: the incredible story and compelling imagery get under your skin- and takes the breath. A Pound of Flesh (In Particulate Shards) employs stillness and tenderness again: the lyrics and themes differ from what has come before, and look at personal perspectives and life-and-death issues. Engel has been told that “the streets of heaven are paved with gold“- she prefers silver she claims- yet does not want to go: there is an aching sadness and redemptive spirit that mix alongside one another. Whether Engel is referencing mortality, the realities of relationships (or heartache); I am not sure, yet her words are at their most poetic. She directs to her subject; desiring to sing in their ear, she want to “turn your heart into a blackbird“. The chorus here is the most effective and memorable across the album: the lines “home is wherever you shed the most dust/a pound of flesh in particulate shards” are stunningly redolent and bewitching. The song comes across as a bruised and aged soul, looking back on life (from the dusk of life’s final moments). A Pound of Flesh‘ claims that “my visions get muddy and my heart it grows cold“: desires and dreams and denied and (as people tell her) will twist and corrode. You get the sense that our heroine’s ambitions and true nature is being denied and belittled; heaven is “swirling with snow“, and Engel does not want to go. One of the most stunning aspects of the song (and those previous) is the ambiguity and oblique threads: words and thoughts are up for discussion and can be interpreted in different ways. Too many songwriters are direct and leave little room for imagination- Engel’s incredible talent for wordplay and story mean that her lines are that much more effective and scintillating. With another typically emotive and stunning vocal performance- the composition seems fuller and slightly more cinematic and symphonic- the pace and quality does not miss a heartbeat. Bringing the collection to a close is My Beloved’s Pulse: perhaps the most beautiful song of all (and the album’s longest track). Engel’s voice is at its most impassioned and pulse-stopping: lines such as “I found a trapdoor in this wretched night/an amethyst eye/in the void” are even more stirring. Our heroine never allows all-out happiness and joy to murk her music’s memorability: there is still darkness in the light. Whilst dawn lights fire “to the bones of ravenous ghosts“, Engel pays mind to a beloved figure: there are storms raging and unforgiving forces at work- her sweetheart is ensuring that she gets through it. Many commentators have paid tribute to Engel’s evocative and scene-setting songwriting: not only do her poetic and incredible words captivate the mind, so too do her wonderfully powerful and elliptical compositions. With her hand on her beloved’s pulse, there is the “drum of a distant surf“; Engel dares the world to test and try to break her- to test her love. An album as stirring and impressive as Looking-Glass Fire deserves a graceful and compelling swansong: that is just what it gets. Concluding a record that offer so much diversity, surprise and wonder, My Beloved’s Pulse is a phenomenally touching and emotive song: few of Engel’s contemporaries would be able to sum up similar emotions with equal force and conviction.

Looking-Glass Fire is a triumph from start to finish. This year, I have reviewed quite a few incredible songwriters and performers: few have impressed me as much as Clara Engel. The album is as vivid and striking as its title suggests. Its sextet of tracks take you somewhere special: the stunning and dream-like words put you directly in the song- and take your mind away. There are a lot of great and ambitious lyricists in music, yet few possess Engel’s talent and flair. When reviewing Kate Tempest- a U.K.-based Rap act- recently, I was mesmerised by her stream-of-consciousness thoughts: the way she deployed her words (and the quality of them) were a startling revelation- shady characters, hostile scenes and pillow talk all mingle alongside one another. Engel’s mandates do not have their heart in the grit and grime of the street; she investigates something more universal and relatable: issues of love, the human heart; familial relations and the soul’s intervention. Engel incorporates oblique and indirect with the beautifully stark: the music and vocals behind the words are direct and emotional throughout- there is barely a chance for the listener to draw breath or demure for reflection. It is not just Engel’s words which amaze and inspire: her voice is gorgeously haunting when it needs to be; beautiful and full-flowing at times; bare-naked and raw- it is a camouflaging weapon that ensures each track never slips from your attention. The production is incredibly concise and clear: each song comes across as pure and organic- there is no over-production or overcrowding at all. I am a relatively new fan of Engel’s, yet have been stunned and taken aback by everything within Looking-Glass Fire: six tracks that demands repeated appreciation and  investigation. It has compelled me to look back at Engel’s back story and huge cannon of material- and imagine what might come next. There seems to be no shortage of confidence and inspiration in our heroine’s mind: this shows across the album. A lot of modern songwriters include a filler or two in an album- their ammunition runs out at some point- yet Engel shows no fatigue or slip: by the final track’s closing moments, you find yourself wanting more.

Given Engel’s prodigious work rate, one would expect the quality to dip slightly- that is not the case here. Most acts suffer a natural sense of fatigue and ageing after a certain point, yet Engel seems to be on the rise: it will be fascinating to see where she is headed next. Mainly resided to Canadian dates, I hope that our heroine does come to the U.K.: I for one, would love to see her perform live- and witness her music alongside others. Lately, I have made some bold proclamations and uttered some enfevered praise: it goes to show the exceptional standard of current-day music. We have a few like-minded acts (similar to Clara Engel) in the U.K., yet few that have the same sense of quality, range and ambition. Musicians such as Kate Tempest and The Glass Child- two of my recent reviews- have provided different perspectives and an equal ambition with words: Engel offers another take, and is amongst the most memorable solo acts in the world. The massive growth of her online fan base shows that her music resonates and connects with a great deal of people: in the coming weeks- when Looking-Glass Fire takes full effect- those figures will continue to surge. Whether another album is imminent, one cannot say (it would not surprise me), but if Engel does do one thing, I would suggest she heads to London- it is one of the busiest and hungriest music markets in the world. Not only would venues and scores of music-lovers latch onto her latest sounds, but radio stations as well- she has already featured on BBC Radio 2; smaller stations XFM and Absolute Radio would definitely show interest. Engel has collaborated with artists from around the globe; prominent artistic figures have offered their highest praise- our heroine claims she is a creative jackdaw (who takes from everyone). She has clearly given the music world a lot, and deserves some respiring attention. Being a new convert to her cause, I am making up a lot of ground- yet know full well how incredible her music is. Take a sip of her new album and let its songs take your away. There is no surrender…

WE’RE through the (wonderful) Looking-Glass now, people.

 

 

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Follow Clara Engel:

 

Official:

http://claraengel.net/

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/#!/claraengelmusic

Twitter:

https://twitter.com/clara_engel

SoundCloud:

https://soundcloud.com/claraengel

BandCamp:

http://claraengel.bandcamp.com/

Last F.M.:

http://www.last.fm/music/Clara+Engel

ReverbNation:

http://www.reverbnation.com/claraengel

iTunes:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/clara-engel/id80857481

____________________________________________________________________________________

Clara Engel’s music can be accessed at:

https://www.facebook.com/#!/claraengelmusic/app_6452028673 

____________________________________________________________________________________

Clara Engel’s videos can be viewed via:

http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXUESzQsiSRsMo0AXKcCl-g 

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Tour dates available via:

https://www.facebook.com/#!/claraengelmusic/events

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Clara Engel vinyls be purchased at:

http://voxhumanarecords.bandcamp.com/album/madagascar-ep

 

 

 

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