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Songs For A Widow is crafted with a diamond-cutter's precision, revealing a delicate balance between sublime harmony and harrowing disharmony, authentic medieval instruments and modern technology. As the album unfolds, the listener experiences one wildly divergent song after another, astonishing juxtapositions blending effortlessly -- impossibly -- from beginning to end. Unto Ashes' fixation with formal compositional structures, meticulous vocal harmonies, and their infamous obsession to sonic detail are combined to create a sense of cohesion. Indeed, Songs For A Widow is unmistakably Unto Ashes at their finest.
Witness songs of gemlike quality such as "Occupying Force," an exquisite piece of music which transcends time and place and is itself worthy of Rivendell, or the album's namesake "Song For A Widow," haunted and murky as the tombs of Mordor. Though saturated with gloom, the album achieves high contrast within itself. Progressing from the Gregorian to the Dionysian through wild mood swings, dirges are transformed into dances, chants into hypnotic drumbeats. Lyrics are taken from many sources both inside and outside the band: here a canzone of Dante, there an original poem in German or neo-Latin. Always tinged with angst, Unto Ashes is yet unpredictable and wide-ranging in their choice of inspirations. On the eve of the Apocalypse, as darkness descends upon us all, Unto Ashes painfully wrings beauty from despair.
Positioned at the vanguard of the darkwave scene, Unto Ashes will be opening for QNTAL on a 17-date European tour in October. The release of Songs for a Widowheralds a brilliant new development in the darkwave genre.
The New York based trio Unto Ashes (Michael Laird, Natalia Lincoln, and Mariko) is currently on tour and their next performance is as headliner at the Court of Lazarus: A Metropolitan Vampire Society. And the Vampiric Court could not have chosen a better lead act as Unto Ashes exemplifies the current gothic/vampire scene: ancient in spirit, modern in practice. Unto Ashes find themselves at the peak of diversity as they approach their decade anniversary. Their latest work Songs for a Widow is the fifth full-length album produced by the American group, and like their others it’s on the Projekt label (with a simultaneous release in Europe on the Pandaimonium label).
“Songs” is as diverse musically as it is with its allusions (q.v., Notes). Drawing inspiration (and material) from a Mediaeval poet (anonymous), a Florentine scholar (Dante Alighieri), and a synthpop legend (Covenant), the record winds its way through funereal dirges, instrumental memorials, and metallic operas using assorted vocal and music styles. Yet one thing remains constant throughout the musical and literary odyssey: a sense of impending doom. This foreboding is maintained with lyrics (“And wear the Death Crown as Autumn falls”), martial beats (“Occupying Force”), and guest musicians playing cello (Catherine Bent), guitar (Katherine Burke), and hurdy gurdy (Melissa Kacalanos) in a manner that evokes a feeling of darkness.
Highlights include the unique take on (and two versions of) Covenant’s “One World One Sky” that opens and closes the work as well as “You Will Never Know” and “A Song for a Widow”, but the strength of Unto Ashes is the scholarship (both musical and literary) they bring to the whole project and, in fact, to their entire catalog. Such intelligent music is rare in our scene and Unto Ashes have few peers (although Dead Can Dance and Loreena McKennitt come immediately to mind). A minor criticism of this album is that its strong point (diversity) is occasionally a weak link as it is often a rough ride down cascading genres and crashing styles.
The tracks are excellent as individual pieces, but they don’t always segue well. This caveat seems irrelevant, however, in the age of single-file downloads. And Unto Ashes’ unique brand of chamber goth and neo folk deserves heavy rotation in any MP3 (or Compact Disc) player.
As I've gone back and read through reviews of past works on this page I begin to realize how legendary this group is starting to become. Look back over their history and recent touring schedule and you start to catch a glimpse of how this band has grown over the years. This disc is a perfect example of all that the band has become in a few short years after so many solid releases. The packaging is what can be expected with lyrics, credits and some nice artwork on the cover. But as usual, it's the music on the disc that we're really interested in, and this disc contains fifteen stellar pieces that fans will love.
Making a perfect start to the album is "One World (Funeral" a short, slower version of their cover of this track put to the drums of a military funeral march. I'll revisit this track again towards the end of this review. "My Lord is Born" is a nice short piece with Michael taking the lead on vocals, presented in the somber style of old-world melancholy cantiques. This gives way to "Convivio" which is a female fronted track with a bit more of a middle-eastern style to it, upbeat and dance-friendly.
"Intacta Sum" serves as a natural break in the album, being a slow, somber piece and providing a nice segue to the beautiful instrumental "The Snow Leopard". This work drifts into a dark and moody atmosphere as the cello and violins are added. "You Will Never Know" is definitely a favorite on this disc as it starts out with angelic vocals and then delves into the dark moods with the addition of Michael's "sinister" distorted vocals and added electric guitar and crashing percussion. Rather than being overly dark and sinister, the overall feeling actually becomes one of angst and longing, tugging at the deepest emotions.
"Dream of the Rood" provides another interlude as a soft little instrumental piece with psychadelic atmospheres. The arrangement of selection of songs comes together so well and the transition into "The Life of this World" is a nice example. This somber piece has Michael again on vocals with backing angelic chorus that launches the listener into an ancient or mystical fairyworld. "Intermezzo", as unique as it is, being a reproduction of an old piece on an old record player even fits nicely before giving way to the harshness of "Drei Todesarten". This edgy piece adds some electric guitar and moving rhythms, though the female vocals soften it just a touch. At last we're brought to the title track which is as can be imagined a dark, moody, slowly dredging piece with a military percussion line and somber vocals. "Occupying Force" has beautiful siren-like vocals soaring over chanting, occasional percussion with a soft guitar accompaniment.
At this point we're brought to the finale of the album in the form of these three final tracks. "I Am Untouched" is really "Intacta Sum" remixed with a soft, moving techno beat and some added electronics. "In Memoriam Robert Luscombe" is a short angelic piece which leaves us with the climax and grand finale to the album. Maybe I appreciate this cover of Covenant's classic anthem as a club DJ more than many others, but this rendition of "One World One Sky" is an excellent cover done as only Unto Ashes could do. As a DJ I've had a lot of fun with this track doing mash-ups and remixes with the original from Covenant.
That wraps up the album and my review. Hopefully the reader can get a sense of the dynamic power, raw emotions and unique compositions of this disc and won't hesitate to go out and pick it up. Rating: 4.5/5
High-pitched ethereal vocals are dressed up with a rich instrumentation in which influences from classical (‘Intacta Sum’), medieval, oriental (‘Convivio’, ‘Drei Todesarten’), symphonic rock and darkwave music have been processed. The combinations of sounds and atmospheres are sometimes a bit peculiar yet they create a versatile album to listen to. A song such as ‘You Will Never Know’ has a layer of metal guitars, with a low-tuned guitar sound combined with ethereal vocals and black metal like half whispered screams. ‘The Life of this World’ is more towards traditional neofolk, ‘Occupying Force’ has a martial touch and ‘I Am Untouched’ with the electronic beats goes in the direction of the sound of Qntal.
The album is opened with a reference to Covenant’s ‘One World One Sky’ disguised as a requiem, and ended with a jolly medieval cover version of that same song. A bit strange yet very tasteful. This also goes for the entire album. The tracks unfortunately are a bit short in duration yet this has the advantage you won’t get bored very quickly as you are constantly introduced to different musical styles and influences.
Unto Ashes understands best how to pack their insatiable and multi-faceted inspiration into an album without sounding inauthentic or immature. Whoever knows the trio knows that they have always been hard to grasp and that they cannot be easily categorized without further ado. However, it is exactly this property that makes them so authentic and undefinable. Unto Ashes is worth a close study.
Now 15 new songs come forward to reap either praise or criticism from the press, or, more importantly, to convert numerous followers of all ages. The spectrum of Unto Ashes is nearly unlimited, because their secret is that there are no limits. They combine forest metal, Heavenly Voices, church choir, and even electronic darkwave. As for the latter, they demonstrate this at length on their coming album, presenting Covenant's live-hit "One World One Sky" in completely new guise and repackaging the forceful melody in the usual Ashes fashion. Paired with wonderful voices of masculine devotion and feminine seduction, they fill each song with beauty and life.
The band manages to find the healthiest mixture of ancient instruments and futuristic synthesizers, in order to craft songs like "Convivio" or "The Snow Leopard," which recall the brilliant soundtrack to Diablo. The balance between good and evil is always upheld, and communicates with this album a very dark, yet shining feeling that is marked by timeless dedication. There are many bands in this genre, but no other is like Unto Ashes.
To find out more about this wonderful, unusual band, visit the website of their new label Pandaimonium!