Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing composer/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, founding member of Tin Hat Trio, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Book of Knots, and various other projects. Her interview was one of my favorites from last year, and I hope you take the time to read it if you haven’t. Her output in her various projects has been incredibly diverse and consistently brilliant, and I wish more fans of progressive music knew about her music!
In that interview, we discussed her latest project, Black Inscription. For several years now, Carla and her husband, Matthias Bossi, have written music together as Rabbit Rabbit Radio, but this project enlisted the help of composer/multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Flower, along with a team of talented musicians. The lineup for Black Inscription consists a seven-piece band with 3 vocalists, and was created to debut as a multimedia performance at the Prototype Festival in New York in January 2018. From the Kickstarter page: “In Black Inscription, a free diver inspired by the late and great Natalia Molchanova, descends into the depths of the ocean, never to resurface. As her terrestrial ties dissolve, she encounters a mystifying underworld with billions of bioluminescent creatures, endlessly inventive structures of coral, gyres of human detritus, and abandoned nets still fishing for no one – sights both awe-inspiring and devastating”.
Black Inscription was conceived as a multimedia project, so I will start my review of the album itself by saying that I wonder how much I miss out by not seeing it performed live. Having said that, I’ll try and take it at face value.
The album begins with a spoken word piece called “Jump Blue”, which is narrated by Tatyana Gessen. It’s a compelling introduction to the narrator, clocking at around 6 1/2 minutes. As an audio CD, I’m not used to narration, so I’ll admit that I’ll only listen to it when I’m doing a full album playthrough, but I feel like it gives the concept of the album and provides some coherency to the various tracks. The first album track, “The Blue Abyss”, plunges us into the water, and the instrumentation creates an incredibly fitting atmosphere and ambiance. The first track that I fell in love with was “Nanomia Cara”, a melancholy, delicate, and introspective track that reminds me a bit of modern-era Peter Gabriel.
As a fan of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s music, I was hoping for darker, heavier tracks than what I had heard with Rabbit Rabbit Radio. That’s not to say that I didn’t love Carla and Matias’s work, but I missed the brutal heaviness of some of her work with Sleepytime, a la “Phthisis” or “Angel of Repose”. “Refuge” is probably the heaviest track on the album. The song is the sonic equivalent of an ocean storm. Carla’s voice grows increasingly more menacing with each verse until the end, when the listener is again “plunged” into the ocean. This song is so intense and emotional and charged that it definitely satisfied my hope.
The vocal harmonies throughout are one of my favorite features on this album. In certain moments throughout, (such as the ending of the sinister track “The Ghost King”) there are these stunningly dissonant vocal harmony clusters. The orchestration of the album covers a lot of diverse ground, but there is a distinct tone throughout the album. Every song is melancholy, hypnotic, and introspective, whether it is the heartbreakingly gorgeous a cappella performance in “Octopolis”, or the sinister sounds of “Black Inscription”, or the anthemic ending of “Susurrus” ( a powerful composition by Jeremy Flower, which, by the way, brought me to tears my first listen), or the haunting finale of “Saline Dreams”. The music truly transports you to each location, whether you’re observing coral formations or examining the complex ecosystems that develop around whale carcasses (yes, there’s a song called “Whale Fall”, and it’s brilliant).
My only criticism of the album would be that I feel like, as gorgeous as it is, I’m only able to have a percentage of the experience, because I am absolutely sure that the moods and themes of the album were augmented and amplified by the visual effects. I’m not sure if Rabbit Rabbit Radio recorded the performance, or plans on repeating this performance in the future, but I certainly hope they do.
I was able to learn from my interview with Carla what her intentions were with this particular project, and I think, from a musical standpoint, this album is a tremendous success. Each song tells a distinct story, that either haunts you, or inspires you, or stuns you with its beauty. The lyrics are complex and layered and incredibly thoughtful, the music is breathtaking, and the album as a whole continues to reveal itself to me with each subsequent listen. I highly recommend this album, but I think it will be especially effective to fans of haunting, thoughtful, ephemeral music.