I don't know why I've held off so long on reviewing this CD; maybe I just needed time to absorb it...then there was a period of about 2 weeks recently that my computer was down...but that's another story. Anyway, we're all familiar with Mark Spybey's DVOA to some degree or another, aren't we? If not, you certainly should be. DVOA has been a staple on the Industrial-Ambient music scene since 1993 or so, and before that Spybey was a member of Zoviet France. During his career Spybey has participated in numerous collaborations, remixes, tours, etc., but you can make your own connections there; this review is likely to be lengthy enough without the full back-story.
I admit that I'm not acquainted with the whole DVOA catalogue. I own a few of their CDs owing to a DVOA phase I went through a number of years ago, but lost touch after the 'Frankie Pett Presents The Happy Submarines...' album. I'm sure that many would lump the music of DVOA in the 'Ambient' category, but it really isn't ambient per se. I've always thought of it as more 'sound collage' utilizing many different elements, some of which inhabit the industrial and ambient realms, and others more experimental, improvisational, noise, electronic, and uncategorizable. So to get a better picture I spent a little time cruising iTunes track previews for the DVOA albums I hadn't heard (which turned out to be quite a few) just for some frame of reference for this review. It couldn't have been a more varied listening experience. There was plenty I liked, as well as things I didn't care for. When you're a leading edge experimenter though, you take chances and not everyone is going to love everything you do. Goes with the territory. Taste changes over time too, not only for the listener but the creator as well, always a factor in whether or not an artist's latest work is going to trip your trigger or not.
As far as 'Michael And The Angels Fought' is concerned, my trigger was definitely tripped. The album is more focused and not as diverse as some other DVOA releases, but I tend to think of that as refinement rather than reduction. The album features a supporting cast that includes contributions from American-Serbian singer Ivana Salipur; the British cellist Bela Emerson; Portland, Oregon throat-singer Soriah; the French auteur and high-wire artist Philippe Petit; Toronto based electronic musician, Michael Morton (Displacer); Massachusetts based guitarist Michael Page (Sky); Utah electronic keyboardist Lori Cole, and also Robin Storey (Rapoon), and Jared Louche (Chemlab). In a sense, 'Michael And The Angels Fought' is like no other DVOA album you have ever heard, although some sonic elements may be familiar at times.
The album consists of five tracks that clock in at one hour. It could be one of the most mesmerizing hours you've spent listening to music of late. Opening track 'Shadow' has classical overtones courtesy of Bela Emerson's cello weaving in and out of clouds of drone. It's a melancholy sort of tranquility, but cellos tend to foster the lachrymose. 'Voice' features the voice of Ivana Salipur, and a heavenly voice it is too. It's not wordless singing either; there are lyrics. Think of This Mortal Coil, or something that might belong on a Heavenly Voices compilation, or if you remember it, 'Celestial' by Heavenly Bodies (sure wish I still had that album), but perhaps even more gorgeous. The track is less ambient-oriented and more structured in a sense with a few simple repeated string-section chord phrases. No less ethereal though. I don't think there is a single DVOA track I've liked better than this one. Absolute perfection! You WILL think of angels when you listen to it.
'Pulse' opens with even more cello which morphs menacingly through some distortion processing before regaining its classical footing. Slow, long, sustained notes and an orchestral pillow of radiance propel the track. At the end, it almost sounds like a viking horn being blown in the distance across the fjords. 'Moon' is at first a dense, breathy track with more overly electronic elements than previously, rumbly bass, static, high timbre drones from Petit's electric psalterion, and eventually Soriah's throat-singing, which gives the piece a truly unearthly feel. The dynamics get very low-key in the middle of the track with hardly-there gentle layered drone supported by similar strings. This is the longest track on the album at 19:36. A bit further on there is an increase in the dynamics as a repetitive chordal phrase emerges, and then disappears as the whole is replaced by a sort of rhythmic loop akin to the sound of a muffled top-loading washing machine during the wash cycle, with an arrhythmic tapping of something made of plastic on a drinking glass, and celestial synth chorus. This culminates in a muffled explosion of chambered noise, but the voices carry on. There is a lot of subtlety to this track, and much more to it than I am describing here. It's one of those things you just have to hear. Especially toward the end, it becomes most typical DVOA, although it's hard to classify anything DVOA does as typical.
Final track, 'Sudden' is perhaps the closest thing to Dark Ambient on the album, although even that categorization could be construed as a misnomer. It has a darker, more ominous tone at first, utilizing swells of phased processed noise in conjunction with Lustmord-style deep drone on the low end. In a sense, it has more of an industrial quality to it, confirmed by the eruption at about midway (7 minutes) through the track. Things get loud and cacophonous for a brief while, suddenly ending in a very different subterranean environment which is eventually transformed into something more brilliant and beautiful (perhaps even hopeful?) courtesy of the sustained strings. We are also treated to some esoteric DVOA sound looping and eerie but intriguing higher timbre sonics. Jared Louche throws in a few words towards the end that is more or less a cameo on his part.
As a whole, this is the most ambient-esque album I've ever heard from DVOA. To me, it also seemed to be the most rewarding. There is undeniable genius at work here and not one iota I didn't care for. If for some reason you've lost touch with DVOA, this is an album you must own to reacquaint yourself with the project. Spybey has created something special with 'Michael And The Angels Fought' and you owe it to yourself to experience it in its entirety. Even if you're not familiar with DVOA (it hardly matters as far as this release is concerned) I recommend this without hesitation, because I have no doubt you'll be thanking me that I did.