JULIA HOLTER Aviary gets 8.5/10

Julia Holter


On Aviary, Julia Holter lets go with a more intuitive, experimental work, pushing her melding of classically informed pop stylings to new heights. At 90 minutes long, Aviary is an occasionally dense album, with a wide dynamic and emotional range and featuring complex compositions unfolding at their own pace. However, Holter (who plays the Rosemount Hotel in a must-see show January) has a highly attuned ear for phrasing and melody, so that the complexity is part of the delight: there’s always something to enjoy in the singing and instrumentation, and something new to look forward to around the next corner.

Regardless of the more literary high brow aspirations in many of the lyrics that borrow from Medieval and Greek literature, Holter’s music is easy to take in owing to her clear singing voice and penchant for some beautiful melodies. She’s an accomplished singer whose voice blends in seamlessly with her compositions, becoming a lead instrument amongst other organic instruments such as violin, double bass and muted trumpet, a legacy of her classical music training.

Holter’s earlier bedroom-produced albums were naturally more intimate-sounding affairs, but on Aviary her sonic palette has expanded to bring to life the more epic nature of the songs here. Yet, there’s always an endearing, emotional core to Holter’s work, regardless of the number of instruments and compositional elements swirling around her voice.

First track Turn The Light On is a cacophony of crashing cymbals, voice and sustained violin and piano notes to begin the album with an opening fanfare to announce a departure from more recent albums. And later on to begin the stunning and somewhat jarring Every Day Is An Emergency, a similar dissonant blast of sound is encountered that echoes the stimulation overload of today’s societal pace, but then gives way to a contemplative ballad on piano to resolve the tension.

In contrast to these atypically noisy tracks, they are more than countered by numbers that are adrift in dreamscapes, such as Colligere and (naturally) Another Dream with its Vangelis-inspired synths. Such songs showcase Holter’s subtle touch for delicate melodies and simple but heartfelt singing style. Voce Simul and Chaitius are also ethereal numbers, and push her voice(s) and words into more experimental territory. Occasionally, there’s just voices that give body to the songs, spiraling and weaving together in fascinating ways.

The real heart of the album, however, is I Shall Love, possibly the strongest single she’s realised to date. It appears in two forms, with part “2” being the single, and part “1” featuring as a de- (or pre-)constructed version appearing near the end of the album (a device she used for Goddess Eyes from 2012’s Ekstasis). Part 2 starts out with just a few simple sustained notes on an electric piano, before strings and a short hyper-catchy melodic theme of “do”s and “whoop”s appears. She sings matter-of-factly: “I am in love. What can I do? That is all, that is all; there is nothing else.” The music then builds slowly over the track’s length, with the gradual introduction of strings, bass, drums and other melodic lines, eventually swelling with a chorus and the whole band rising to a triumphant crescendo. It’s one of her more straightforward tracks, and perhaps because of this, one of the most powerful and memorable.

Other standout tracks are the minimalistic I Would Rather See and Underneath The Moon, with a steady rhythm providing some more propulsion this time, and with a change of direction mid-way through that even approaches some genuine funkiness from Holter.

The album concludes on a more downtempo mood, with second single Words I Heard and Why Sad Song, the latter another poignant ballad with minimal instrumentation and evocative lyrics.

Throughout the 2010s, Julia Holter has been quietly putting together a catalogue of incredibly strong work owing to its compositional boldness, intricate arrangements and fine vocal performances. With a few standout exceptions, the sounds and songs aren’t so much designed to be “hits”, but rather the working out of a new kind of vision for what popular music can be.

Although (rightfully) associated with classical music owing to her background in composition and orchestral arrangements, visionary albums like Aviary will soon be regarded as simply “classic” in the other sense of the word: very, very good.