Toronto multi-instrumentalist, Clara Engel (they/them), describes their music as ‘uneasy listening’. As a person who adores the intimacy of the talharpa (a Nordic lyre) and the shruti box (Indian harmonium), Engel’s experimental folk exists in a time-exempt paradigm where lullabies and liturgical odes to nature’s supremacy loop in your head like congruent dreams waiting to form in your imagination. Indeed, Their Invisible Hands is the metaphorical expedition with no beginning and no end that could play forever.
Opener, ‘O Human Child’, takes an extract from W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Stolen Child’ for its cerebral material but starts like a Stravinsky piece from The Rite of Spring. Clara’s voice is deep and hypnotic and yet still fragile in its delivery. The shruti box feeding the breeze of sustained notes through your ears lingers like a pleasant fragrance from a bygone era. It’s a captivating death spell that can help you exit the world in peace. Dead Can Dance fans will appreciate the minimalist folk brilliance of ‘Dead Tree March’, with its tribal tongue drum rhythms and whistle of the chromonica. This is the song you wish to experience in a beer garden on an early Sunday evening before the pressures of Monday morning rear their head. Clara has a knack for taking you out of the moment with their slow-bending compositions.
Devotional is an apt description for this music, but it’s a secular devotion to the simplicity of natural phenomenon rather than a spiritual plea for transcendence. Hippy music this is not. Think of it more as a mystical meditation on things you can comprehend. In fact, the lyrical content of this record is fascinating enough to hold your attention with no concern for the instrumentation. ‘Glass Mountain’ displays a stupendous grasp of poetry: “A pale lantern/ hangs from my throat/ in the weakening light of November/ fork of white lightning/ a faded rainbow/ my voice/ scorched and aching/ remembers.” The words to ‘High Alien Priest’ read like the penmanship of a contemporary novelist: “High alien priest in a convertible car/ red rimmed eyes/ pulls up at a crumbling dive bar/ mouth like a bruise.” This would qualify as a fine piece of creative writing if not already a poignant hand loom of cigar box guitars plucking away under a willow tree.
As with any artist undergoing a phase of hypomania, Engel realises that now is not the time to hold back. This means we get over an hour of hypnotic folk music, and this would be a problem if the finished product was anything other than meditative. Yet you can sit and listen to this and immerse yourself in its dreamy textures like a musical equivalent of ASMR. It won’t make you tingle, but it might entangle you in a world where no signs of human civilisation reveal themselves to the discerning eye. That’s what you want, right? The chance to visit the breeze-filled golden plains that represent the effulgence of heaven? You won’t find them here, but Engel can give you a glimpse of the placidity of a dignified death, wherever that may take you.
It’s true that some of these songs are too long for their own good. The six minutes of primitive talharpa and simple percussion on ‘Cryptid Bop’ are more of a nuisance than a new perspective. An instrumental like ‘Rowing Home Through a Sea of Golden Leaves’ needs more colourful pastures besides the resonance of guitar strings and melodica notes imitating violin bows. Yet you’re swooning once more at the exquisite imagery of the words when you reach the penultimate track, ‘The Party is Over’. “Dress the wounded sunset/ lull the raging sea/ a swan’s lament/ Or an ugly duckling’s dream,” intones Engel, with a voice that wants to gasp.
There’s a future for Clara Engel as a creative writer if they need another outlet for their artistic impulses, but Clara’s a dedicated performer with a wanderlust for the live stage. More experimentation will enhance the experience on their next record, but Engel has many musical daydreams on this one that are both solemn and scintillating.
Release Date: 15/04/2022
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: Dead Tree March, I Drink the Rain, High Alien Priest
Suggested Further Listening: Myrkur – Folkesange (2020), Chelsea Wolfe – Birth of Violence (2019), Rïcïnn – Nereïd (2020)