Review Summary: An album that doesn't need to be perfect to be astonishing and powerful.
The darkness is something beautiful, isn't it? Ok, that probably depends on the point of view one favours, either associating it with fear, loneliness, death or rather having the clear purity and its mysterious nature popping up as first connotations. We won't be able to avoid the topic though, since Anja Plaschg, nowadays better known under the name Soap&Skin and Austria's first musical wunderkind since Mozart died over 200 years ago, chose death and darkness as her thematic prime targets from the very beginning of her career. Her debut "Lovetune For Vacuum"
was already a haunting, gloomy something, that successfully bridged the gap between its focused and pure beauty and a remarkably somber aura for a 19-year-old - both perfectly implemented with the mix of classical and electronic sound. Three years later there's no need for a game changer, a continuation of the already known would be quite enough to let praise seem justified.
Sounds like a simple task, yet the back story that preceded "Narrow"
makes it quite clear, why it is everything but that. Cause the months after her debut brought Plaschg not only high praise from many sides, but also the unexpected death of her father. What followed was deep depression, the temporary hospitalization in a psychiatric hospital and a year-long writer's block. Finally complete seclusion from the rest of the world in Italy was the last step to bring her back on a more positive path.
This rough period led to a short follow-up, which seems at times even more emotional and stirring than what she'd already done. And it produced opener Vater
(engl.: father) - according to her a detailed workup of her feelings around that time -, her first song with German lyrics and a minimalistic performance, for the longest time only featuring Plaschg's pure vocals and her beautiful piano performance. And still, all the meaning and its disturbing nature can't completely mask that it doesn't transcend as well as most of her earlier work. Primarily it's the rather unwieldy vocals that prevent the song from developing into the masterpiece it could have been. But even musically the track only sporadically showcases her full talent. After a too long and too calm build-up a great climax right in the middle, followed by a stunning instrumental part make up for some of the songs shortcomings, but with some misplaced electronic backing at the end an entirely positive résumé seems impossible.
A fitting introduction, since "Narrow" still represents a masterful artist at work, only with some slight mistakes here and there, which clearly set it apart from her first LP. Especially in the middle section you find tracks that rather fall flat instead of mesmerizing the listener. That stems probably from the musical understatement, a less experimental and more focused approach. Therefore electronic voice manipulation is rather a thing of the past as is the constant mix of classical and electronic influences. Under those circumstances piano-only songs like Cradlesong
- the latter augmented by a small background choir - aren't perfect, they're only good. This might sound stupid, though for Plaschg it is a decline quality-wise.
Although there's no denial, you would do wrong by Plaschg to say "Narrow"
on the whole is a misstep. Because what I left out so far are the powerful reminders of the great musician she is. This time, those are found mostly in the electronic-based section of the LP. Deathmental
features an unmelodious industrial sound with a hard and cold beat, accompanied by a variety of computer-based noises, temporarily resembling a horn section, elsewhere giving a cold piano part the slightest bit of spotlight. Paired with the slightly enigmatic vocals by Plaschg, which completely contrast the dynamic instrumentals, the song makes for highly memorable minutes. Just as much as the shorter closer Big Hand Nails Down
. Heading into a similar direction sonically, it is carried mostly by its harsh keyboard part, making for an aggressive start and an atmosphere resembling the one that successfully distinguished Marche Funebré
three years earlier. Dominated by a more powerful, slightly anthemic vocal approach the track is driven by its great beat and the ticking clock in the background that already opens up the song.
Considering the high quality work of Boat Turns Toward The Port
, which effectively combines everything offered on other tracks here, even slightly outpacing them vocally with some beautiful harmonies, we're already at a point of truly great quality again. Yet, the best minutes are still waiting and actually they aren't really hers. A cover of 80's pop hit Voyage, Voyage
by French singer Desireless marks a triumphant continuation of her past performances in Cynthia
or Mr. Gaunt Pt 1000
. It's a beautiful five-minute piece, not sufficiently described with the words moving, haunting or gloomy. Based solely on the piano - perfectly blending the lightness of clear, high notes and the oppressive weight of her dissonant chords - it marks a high point for Soap&Skin, a compliment that isn't earned easily looking at her earlier output. Masterfully carried by her brilliant vocal performance and topped off by the sparsely used strings the track isn't one to forget easily, not necessarily because of its musical qualities, but rather because of the surprising emotional depth of this cover song.
It tells you an awful lot that this is in fact not the better of her two albums. And that's pretty much the only reason, why criticism seems inevitable to some extent. Looking at "Narrow"
without drawing any comparisons though, it offers a bunch of astonishing minutes. Those come across both as piano-based, calm expressions of Plaschgs dark aura and cold, hard-hitting, electronic pieces defined by a certain aggressiveness and mysterious soundscapes. Together they form a small but mighty collection of Soap&Skin's talent, introducing you to the dark and grim world she paints with her music. No matter if the flaws are more evident this time, if some of the infallibility she showed on "Lovetune For Vacuum" is absent here, "Narrow" is damn great music by a damn great artist. Period.
Big Hand Nails Down