No matter how much you write about a record, you can never quite fully encapsulate the feelings invoked by the music. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Leila Abdul-Rauf’s (Vastum, Ionophore, Cardinal Wyrm, Fyrhtu) words about her new album, Phantasiai, go some way to explaining why this might be. She writes, by way of explanation of the record’s concept:
In Hellenistic philosophy, phantasiai are our impressions, the ways in which the world is represented through our senses, preceding actual thoughts. This is where music-making lies for me: in the space between senses and thoughts, having the power to express where words fall short.
In the same spirit, Abdul-Rauf encourages us to use our own imagination when considering any sense of narrative that might unfurl as we listen through Phantasiai’s two “suites” — Distortions In Phantasy and The I Emerges. However, she also presents her own accompanying story for us to consider. The four tracks of Distortions In Phantasy represent a character who gradually becomes “seduced and consumed by a…phantasy…so destructive [that] body, mind and spirit are annihilated beyond recognition.” The I Emerges is about the character’s “renewal [whereby] what little is left of the former self is vaporized and re-organized into a new physical and spiritual existence.” My own experience with Phantasiai is that the clearest path through what Abdul-Rauf describes as her “coldest and most sinister” record to date is forget about the story and instead to let the music work its magic into that “space between senses and thoughts”.
Phantasiai’s reverb-drenched ambient soundscapes are unsettling, dreamlike and eerie. They take their time to develop and don’t follow obvious structures. The record feels like the soundtrack to some kind of sinister subversion of a fairytale movie. On casual inspection one might assume that the sounds were largely electronic. In fact, whilst a great deal of sonic manipulation has taken place, the music has actually been constructed almost entirely from trumpet, glockenspiel and vocal recordings. Vocals are mostly used for atmospheric effect rather than lyrical clarity or to provide a main melody. When lyrics do appear they are hidden beneath the atmospheric wash so that they can’t easily be deciphered. Melody in general is largely absent, but when it does arrive it does so with grace and purpose. At these points — especially when Abdul-Rauf’s wonderful singing voice is used to its fullest effect — the music is hauntingly beautiful. But those moments don’t last for long — frequent changes and use of dissonance and noise mean that restlessness is ever-present and comfort is elusive.
Leila Abdul-Rauf has composed, produced and mixed Phantasiai with a great deal of consideration and skill. The record is set apart from many other ostensibly similar ones owing to the mastery Abdul-Rauf has over her craft as a composer and musician. It is dense, complex and unusual, but all of that feels absolutely intentional and under the composer’s control. Comparisons could be made to the work of Jarboe, Cocteau Twins, Laurie Anderson or perhaps the more experimental end of Anna Von Hausswolff’s output.
Phantasiai brings a powerful and encompassing experience that isn’t always pleasant. It does what it does extremely effectively, but not everyone will like it. It is not an album that brings instant gratification, nor is it one that is easy to let wash over oneself. It is uncomfortable, uneasy and strange, and resolution doesn’t ever really arrive. But Phantasiai is deeply evocative and emanates a certain mournful sadness that brings with it catharsis and release. Ultimately, words do indeed “fall short”; you’ll have to put yourself through the actual experience to know whether this record connects with you. I’m glad to have visited Phantasiai’s twisted and bizarre realm, and I’m equally pleased that I don’t have to reside there permanently.
Phantasiai by Leila Abdul-Rauf is out now and is available in various formats via Cyclic Law and Cloister Recordings. By it here: https://leilaabdulrauf.bandcamp.com/album/phantasiai
7 / 10