by Jordan Blum
Self-described acoustic/chamber progressive duo iamthemorning has long been a bedrock of Kscope’s distinctively elegant and emotionally resonant roster. Comprised of composer/pianist Gleb Kolyadin and vocalist/lyricist Marjana Semkina, the Russian pair presents gorgeously multifaceted arrangements and raw sentiments with each release. Their last venture, 2016’s Lighthouse, is likely the superlative example of that chemistry, and while its follow-up, The Bell, isn’t as immediately gratifying or memorable, it’s subtler and more nuanced approach nonetheless warrants its place alongside its predecessors. In other words, it’s more of a grower than fans might expect, but those who invest enough time and attention into it will surely be rewarded.
The Bell is broken into two shorter sequences (each consisting of five tracks, inspired by “19th century song cycles . . . that cohesively tells 10 individual stories”). Semkina explains that the collection is “fueled by human cruelty and pain caused by it,” adding, “[It’s] multi-layered and is, in many ways, a journey inward, taking us inside of a mind of a person suffering from abuse or neglect or open hostility of the society or a specific person.” As for its cover—once again handled by Constantine Nagishkin— it’s “a safety coffin bell – a 19th century idea born from people’s obsessive fear of being buried alive, having been provoked by a lot of press attention to supposed cases of premature burials across the country.” Admittedly “morbid,” Semkina also sees hope in the imagery: “no matter how low you are or desperate you think your situation is, you can still call for help.” To that end, The Bell is as delightfully dour as it is lusciously life-affirming.
Part I commences with “Freak Show,” a typical yet tempting blend of sparse piano work, symphonic ornamentations, and vulnerable lyricism: ‘No one seems to care / That I break into million pieces / Oh, they just stand and stare / As I break into million pieces more.’ It works as well as ever—further solidifying the characteristic magic of their partnership—but it’s the eventual frenzied eruption of stylishly complex counterpoints (including electric guitar, horns, and strings) that truly radiates exquisitely dynamic resistance. In fact, it’s one of iamthemorning’s best compositions to date, and fortunately, the remaining selections hold sway as well. In particular, the more sensual and organic “Sleeping Beauty” conjures the mournful timbres of Sia’s “Breathe Me” before the directness of “Blue Sea” makes for an arresting ballad with pristine piano motifs.
Luckily, Part II fares just as well. It starts with “Ghost of a Story,” a haunting gem that builds beautifully (no surprise there) and centers on Kolyadin’s fancy fingerwork in conjunction with Semkina angelically dejected harmonies. Next, “Song of Psyche” (“vaguely based on a story of Cupid and Psyche”) is just as evocative, as it’s grounded by interlocking acoustic guitar arpeggios and sleekly spiraling singing. In contrast, “Lilies” places Kolyadin’s panicked patterns beneath Semkina’s patient narrative coating, whereas “Salute” brings warmly bittersweet and eclectic playfulness—plus a grander scope— to the fold. As for the closing title track, it captures the idiosyncratic sorrowful splendor of classic Kate Bush in more ways than one whilst peppering the landscape with some truly awe-inspiring vocal entwinements. It’s a wonderful way to conclude such an artistically dignified statement.
All of that praise aside, The Bell isn’t flawless, as there are a couple of inclusions that feel slightly subpar by comparison (so it’s a testament to the magnificence of the rest that these offerings come up lacking just a bit). Though aesthetically lovely odes in their own right, “Black and Blue” and “Six Feet” aren’t quite as melodically fetching or textually stunning as their brethren. Each is magnificent in and of itself, but when placed into the context of The Bell as a whole, they feel a tad like divinely constructed filler.
By and large, The Bell is another triumphant entry into the iamthemorning catalog. What it lacks in insatiable instrumental and vocal hooks (relative to its precursor, at least), it makes up for with richer developments and a more seamless structure. Undeniably, some of the pair’s best material is here; thus; no matter how fans rank it alongside its forerunners, there’s no doubt that it’s almost flawlessly demonstrates why Semkina and Kolyadin make such a riveting, significant, and venerable team.
Released on August 2nd, 2019 on Kscope Music
Key Tracks: Freak Show, Blue Sea, Song of Psyche
1. Freak Show (7:09)
2. Sleeping Beauty (3:42)
3. Blue Sea (3:08)
4. Black and Blue (3:58)
5. Six Feet (3:56)
6. Ghost of a Story (3:58)
7. Song of Psyche (3:20)
8. Lilies (4:28)
9. Salute (7:27)
10. The Bell (5:04)
Total Time 46:10
Line-up / Musicians
– Marjana Semkina / vocals, backing vocals, acoustic guitar (3)
– Gleb Kolyadin / grand piano, keyboards
– Vlad Avy / acoustic guitar, electric guitar
– Zoltan Renaldi / bass, double bass (1,2,6,9)
– Svetlana Shumkova / drums (1,5,9)
– Evan Carson / drums, percussion (2,5,9)
– Andres Izmaylov / harp (1,6,9)
– Grigory Osipov / marimba (2,9)
– Dmitry Tsepilov / saxophone (1,2)
– Ilya Leontyev / trumpet (9)
– Mr. Konin / bells, accordion, clapping
St.Petersburg Orchestra “1703”