Review Summary: Watching the countryside
It’s exciting when an artist deeply indebted to traditional musical doctrines is able to defy them gracefully. In an interview with Speakeasy, violinist Sarah Neufeld explains both a reverence for classical training, and an urge to pathfind at her leisure. For example, she forgoes normal musical notation for a peculiar system of “maps and codes.
” Whatever it is, it translates well. Titular opener “The Ridge” is both powerful and delicate, with a triumphant shimmer. It conveys a sense of dawning; but, rather than complete serenity, it resembles waking up mid-flight, instantly exhilarated. Fellow Arcade Fire member Jeremy Gara boosts the track with drum work that is either subtle or vivid as needed, propelling the song forward buoyantly. Follow-up “We’ve Got a Lot” balances Neufeld’s stringed precision with oozing, percussive undertones in the form of murky synth work. One of The Ridge'
s best assets is using a fairly basic set of core elements - primarily, Neufeld’s violin, occasional vocals, Gara’s drumming, and a few Colin Stetson sightings - and achieving both variety and cohesiveness in near-perfect measures. No two songs have the same framework, yet The Ridge
sounds disciplined and focused.
The overall sound is post-minimalism in the vein of some of Max Richter’s work, but with a more rewarding sense of abstruse emotions and uplifting, well-paced structures, and less moping. Everything is bright and picturesque, with a keen sense of soundscaping. Another vital quality of The Ridge
is its use of transitions, be they song-to-song or mid-track. “The Glow” shifts from a bubbly, organic pizzicato technique to an ethereal outro fitting for a Chelsea Wolfe number. Like the rest of the album, the percussion is both peripheral and sporadically rhythmic, either popping in without much warning, or fading into the background almost unnoticeably. The story arch across The Ridge
is compelling, which feels a bit counterintuitive to say, given how ambiguous it is. There might not be much contextual reasoning in how the songs are woven together, but Neufeld has a weird sense of neoclassicism. Her songs feel like cultural relics that aren’t really bound to any specific period or place, blended with more present-day composition: a sort of juncture to a fictitious realm. It just works well, and it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why.
Initially, The Ridge
doesn’t really present itself in an immediately-satisfying way, beyond being undeniably pretty (and, on “Chase the Bright and Burning”, bizarrely sexy); but, it isn’t too dense to dig into casually. It’s a very light
album, mostly. Some similar works have a waterlogged quality, where every crevice is stuffed with unnecessary tones, bogging it down. Neufeld’s sophomore solo release feels very airy and fresh, despite the rich content and array of ideas. The most evocative moments are softly-placed, begging for additional listens. In particular, closer “Where the Light Comes In” feels like an old village slowly decaying in the wake of encroaching modern developments; or, it resembles the dignity of an old man dying while overseeing a prosperous farm he cultivated through years of honest toiling. There’s a very deliberate, sensuous inflection with each saw of the strings, in contrast to the rapid, feathery delivery in the title track. The strength of The Ridge
isn’t really in how it evokes emotions, or even to showcase Neufeld’s maturing skills, though it accomplishes both. Moreso, it succeeds in how it makes an indeterminate landscape worth trekking.