Music Reviews

Artist: Leila Abdul-Rauf
Title: Insomnia
Format: CD
Label: Antibody/Malignant Records (@)
Rated: *****
Leila Abdul-Rauf is a multi-instrumental music artist from San Francisco. If her name seems familiar to you, you might recognize it from such bands and projects as Vastum, Ionophore, Hammers of Misfortune, Amber Asylum, and Bastard Noise. I understand that she's a mean metal guitarist, but you won't hear anything like that here. 'Insomnia', released on Malignant's side-label Antibody is her second foray into ambient, the first being 'Cold and Cloud' on Saadi Saati (2013). I haven't had a chance to hear that one, but after this, I'm definitely going to check it out. The music on 'Insomnia' is dark, but not pitch black, more grey or crepuscular. It is also more melodic than most dark ambient. Unlike other recent releases I've heard from Malignant, there is no "noise" component, somewhat of a relief to me. Leila enlists a few guest musicians on this album - Jan Hendrich (e-bow on "Absences" and "Wane"); Ryan Honiker (violins on "Wane"); Nathan Verrill (guitar and additional synths on "Edges of a Mirror"); and Kat Young (lead vocals on "Pull"). That' right, there are tracks with vocals on this album; three of them to be exact, and lyrics too, not just wordless. Songs with vocals? Doesn't that betray the ambient concept? you might be asking. Well, no, not here. 'Insomnia' is sort of the ambient music of a dream; not a nightmare as dark ambient might imply, but perhaps a waking dream; that time between midnight and dawn when you just can't sleep and everything seems surreal.

Things fittingly begin with "Midnight" where a swell of angelic wordless voices float over a dream-like ambience, quickly moving into "Drift", where deep chambered muted horn sounds provide the hazy top over lower shifting drones. This is territory you might expect inhabited by Vida Obmana, Robert Rich or Jeff Greinke. "The Opening" lets in some light and radiance with lighter drone ambience and Leila's vocals (yes, with lyrics) in a sort of abstract song in heavenly voices mode. Wow! This is really beautiful. It grows in intensity but never oversteps its bounds. "Clock Glows" is one of those enigmatic mystery pieces that makes so much out of so little. A delicate melody supported by minimal synth work, this is cinema worthy. I've been charmed. "Pull" (with Kat on vocals) has simple piano accompaniment and that mournful chambered horn. It's a song but ambient in that Projekt/4AD way. Reminds me a bit of Frolic. Absolutely lovely! "Seconds Tick" give the impression of time passing, but oh so surreally. "Edges of a Mirror" and Absence" are wonderfully sublime dark ambient pieces heavily reliant on drones. "He Sits in His Room", another track with understated vocals by Leila employs a droney atmosphere with a repetitive, low plucked string musical phrase and that mournful chambered horn again. Vaguely psychedelic, moody and highly atmospheric. "Wane" brings together a lot of previous musical elements previously employed by Leila with the addition of violins and e-bow. Perhaps this is the most desolate sounding track on the album. It ends with "Dark Hours of Early Morning", the most intensely dark piece on all of 'Insomnia'. Yet there is concession to light towards the end as daybreak can be sensed on the horizon. The perfect outro.

I can't remember when I so thoroughly enjoyed an album from start to finish with nary a thing to question or grouse about. This is one exceptionally fine album with a high degree of replayability. Leila nails it here in a way few seem to be able to do. I would even recommend this to those who aren't necessarily into dark ambient. Although the neat CD cover painting by Mark Thompson would have you believe the music is bleak, it really isn't. So far, a contender for album of the year. It's just that damn good.

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