Ethel’s Latest Album Is Worth the Wait
Extrovert violinist Todd Reynolds may have left adventurous string quartet Ethel to pursue his solo career, but the group continues on with Mary Rowell filling his place. And the group’s long-awaited new album, Heavy – out from Innova in a charmingly vintage, oversize package – proves to be worth that wait. The title is a little misleading: the moods evoked here run the gamut from raw, unleashed menace to playful and fun. The centerpiece is an early Julia Wolfe composition, Early That Summer. It’s classic Wolfe: driven by a cruelly emphatic, incessant staccato rhythm that the ensemble never wavers from, it begins with creepy, tritone-fueled exchanges of machinegun fire between the ensemble with intricate dynamic shifts. Cellist Dorothy Lawson is the star of this one early on over the suspenseful ambience of the higher strings, Rowell plus violist Ralph Farris and violinist Neil Duffalo. Disjointed Giant Steps phrases bring on more relentless staccato and increasingly unsettling microtones, growing more stately and then fading. Like so much of Wolfe’s work, it takes your breath away – it might be the most viscerally intense piece of music released this year in any style of music.
John Halle’s Sphere [‘]s developes a summery plantation soul ambience, its rustic charm underpinning subtly alternating voices with bluesy allusions, trainwhistle slides, and variations that crescendo with an elegant spiritual feel. John King’s pensively bucolic No Nickel Blues moves from quavery off-pitch ambience to slow, soulful, judicious variations, steady over a tricky tempo. Another standout track, Raz Mesinai’s La Citadelle takes a swooping, diving gypsy dance and expands on it, alternately minimalist and cinematic – this particular citadel is as active as a busy airport, and fraught with chromatically-charged tension. By contrast, David Lang’s pensive, rather horizontal Wed works subtle variations on simple, memorable sostenuto motifs.
Kenji Bunch joins the ensemble for a lively take on his String Circle, blending Celtic and bluegrass motifs into its shapeshifting architecture colored by subtle microtonal shades and an intricate divergence of voices. As it builds, it becomes more classical than bluegrass, developing a warmly balmy, cantabile pulse. The album’s final track, Marcelo Zarvos’ Rounds ends the album on a resonantly cantabile note, a pretty, Britfolk-inflected song without words exchanging hypnotic, circular pizzicato passages with a swelling, cantabile pulse. There’s also a string quartet by Don Byron that opens the album and which you will probably want to leave off your phone, or your machine, whatever that may be, when you upload this. Otherwise, this is a rich and rewarding mix that ought to appeal to rock fans as well as those with a taste for more challenging sonics.
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