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Album Review: Julia Holter 'Aviary'


33-year-old Avant pop extraordinaire Julia Holter does not make music based on what people want. While her 2015 album Have You In My Wilderness was rather easy on the ears and appealed to a wider audience, it was dotted with leanings toward complex song structures and abstract lyricism. With her new album titled Aviary, Holter forgoes pop simplicity for no-holds-barred obscurity and otherworldly merriment of sound and time that will certainly challenge the bravest of listeners. A paradoxical display of layers and references, the interplay of words and sound encompassing Aviary need numerous listens to fully fathom. Inspired by Medieval symbolism and an Etel Adnan quote, "I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds," this project tinkers heavily and ponderously with bird imagery. According to Holter in an interview with The 405, birds mirror “thoughts in your mind, flying around, mixed up with memories...memories are beautiful, birds are beautiful, memories are also terrible, birds can also be scary…” If that isn’t an apt comparison to the sonic and emotional bewilderment of Aviary, I don’t what is — there are moments ladened with serene beauty akin to the coo of a morning dove yet a sense of torment and incoherency reminiscent to Hitchcock’s “Birds” pervades. In light of the comparative simplicity of her previous work, Aviary subverts all expectations with an alluring, often orchestral, and elaborately crafted amalgamation of noise that will make listeners rethink Holter overall. Navigating through realms of subtle ethereality and wondrous emotions, Holter’s expansive offering proves to be equally dense, dark, and maximalist. Even though the record will come across as hifalutin, overtly academic, and at times, bland, there are enough playful and adventurous moments that lend the record a magical demeanor flooding with thought and emotion. Though Holter litters Aviary with literary references, poetic structures, and phonetic alchemy, the above does need to be understood in order to entertain the record’s splendor. In fact, the dancing arrangements, differing tones, and contrasting moods prove to be the primary gateway into its overarching, cathartic beauty. Unlike before, the music comes first here, while meaning and interpretation come second. What initially appears as an improvised mix of zany synth and Holter’s cinematic voice, Aviary inhabits more meaning and complex layers of instrumentation as time progresses. If it hasn’t been proven before, Aviary cements Holter as a singular world builder. She imbues each track with a sense of liberty—freedom to roam, breathe, and bleed into one another while taking detours into undiscovered worlds. The result is a sprawling and incredibly unique 90-minute magnum opus to an already near-immaculate body of work. Opening with “Turn The Light On,” Aviary commences with a cloudburst of strings deluging the listener in abrasive discord. While these strings, often screeching, meander into hectic territory, Holter’s Björk-esque vocals are a nice, tranquil buffer and a tone-setter for what’s to come. With “Voce Simul,” otherworldly voice affectations swarm into bewitching chants (Voce simul consona obviosa obliviosa deliriosa) and chaotic bliss. Here, Holter’s delivery soars to searing heights and crescendos with crashing symbols, obliterating the appeasing exchange of harp and glistening synth below.

“Everyday is An Emergency” is as deceptive of a track as they come. This near eight-minute-long monster unravels with a riveting onslaught of hocketing bagpipe cacophony that will grate upon most, if not all ears. But if you manage to survive, the second half will reward you with a beautiful morsel of Holter’s angelic croon placating over ethereal keys.

A third of the way through the album, Holter’s obscure deviation has proven to be oddly purifying and easy to become immersed in. Imbuing a classical, almost-medieval sound with cyber synth production that will recall the world of Blade Runner, this musical anomaly peaks with the first track shared from Aviary. “I Shall Love 2,” which may actually be Holter’s best song ever released, represents the radiant and emotional core to a bewildering journey of an album. This dreamy epic is an expressively intangible experience that slowly but surely evolves into a celestial explosion. Lyrically, Holter reverberates with hope and clarity “I am in love...there is nothing else.” Though it may appear she is speaking of some romantic affection, she clarifies in the album’s press release that “it’s about a seeking for compassion and humility in a world where it feels like empathy is always being tested,” which seems only fitting considering Aviary’s sparse yet prominent moments of grace and delicacy against those of darkness.

In view of the stunning “I Shall Love 2,” “Underneath the Moon” is a bit of a bummer. Though it features a Talking Heads-inspired groove, it is out of place within the context of the album’s predominantly ethereal feel. Nevertheless, it's a passable launchpad into yet another stunning number. In “Colligere,” the mystifying fog of Aviary becomes even more palpable, forcing the listener down a bottomless well of sound to dissolve into it. While Holter’s intentionally robotic delivery recalls the sampled voices of children off Aphex Twin’s “To Cure A Weakling Child,” “Colligerie” mostly harkens to the eerie synthesized nostalgia of Richard James’ experimental cousin, Boards of Canada.

The most “simple” track of the bunch, “In Garden’s Muteness” would have been an appropriately somber way to conclude Aviary, but instead, the album drags on a bit longer than it should have. While “Les Jeux to You” is another phenomenal number, it would have been better placed early on. If listeners have yet to check out at this point they passed the test of bravery and will be rewarded by the final few tracks, most notably “Why Sad Song.” With Aviary, Holter is throwing an ornate kitchen sink painted with otherness at listeners, and unless you have an hour and a half of time to spare, Aviary is difficult to take in through one sitting. Of course, this does not mean one cannot enjoy Holter’s sweeping project—it just needs to be experienced in portions.

To say listeners will be challenged by the sophistication and length of this album is an understatement. In spite of its demanding length and level of weirdness, Aviary is an incredibly immersive voyage and arguably her greatest achievement. In fact, it wouldn’t be too bold to say this is an Art pop masterpiece via one of the best songwriters alive—it’s just not for everyone, and Holter is ok with that.

THE 405 RATING: 7.5/10


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