New music time!
While vocal talent is still more or less a given, the standard for how well a singer can sing is getting lower and lower. A surprising statement, sure, but it still seems to be a true one. A so-so singer can get by on rapping, sing-talking, mumbling, or snarling their way through, or, of course, using a studio effect like Auto-Tune. And this isn’t exclusive to any particular genre, most everyone can get away with it.
Which is why hearing a vocal-centric artist like Canada’s Clara Engel is so refreshing. Secret Beasts is her 5th studio album since 2004, and her experience shows. Engel is an artist that has harnessed her trademark sound; her avant-garde stylings blend sparse blues and folk instrumentation with her other-worldly vocals.
Much like the rest of the album, Engel’s voice is (thankfully) pushed to the front. Behind her is a steady duet of guitar and drums, with occasional entrances from piano, strings, and horns. The simple and often repetitive nature of the instruments on “Break In the Sun” (opening song), combined with Engel’s operatic vocals, gives the song a spiritual edge, especially when Engel is joined with a chorus. With chants of “Break in the sun until the sun breaks down”, it’s hard not to be pulled in.
“Ghost Opera” shows more Engel’s vocal gymnastics over a repeated acoustic guitar pattern and an ebb-and-flow drum beat. The steady rise and fall nature of the track comes off as entrancing, engaging, and somehow sensual. From here, Engel settles into a good groove for a couple tracks, including the delightfully well-formed “Old Fashioned Love”. While previous tracks felt like accompaniments (nothing wrong there), “Old Fashioned Love” places Engel in a folk song, and the result is incredibly pleasant. “Madagascar”, meanwhile, is one of the more free-form songs on Secret Beasts.
The comparison I came up with for Secret Beasts was Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs. Even though there’s not a lot of overlay between the albums sonically, they both build their songs quite well, and put an emphasis on atmosphere. They’re both also fantastic background music with “Holy crap, this is awesome” moments coming through (such as the vocal swell on “I Have No Words”). As far as lyrics, both albums gave me the same impression: poetry meant to be sung. But unlike Thom Yorke, Clara Engel’s words come through loud and clear, even during her more elastic moments.
From there, Secret Beasts struts through a few more tracks, all of which are up to par, but start feeling a little stale once “Angelus Bells” enters its fifth minute. Thankfully, Engel antes up for the next pair of tracks: “Blind Me” and “Chorus of Murderous Bells”. “Blind Me” is a classic builder: from basic guitars and vocals, it grows and grows before coming back almost full circle for a very satisfying listen (the backing choir and wonderful melody are high points).
“Chorus of Murderous Bells”, meanwhile, is more sinister. Beginning with simple, repeated guitar and some great narrative lyrics, the song grows darker and darker, adding drums and strings while Engel marches on. Like the previous song, “Chorus of Murderous Bells” winds its way up to climax, then deftly comes back down. Closer “The Sailor’s Choice” clocks in at a little over two minutes, and brings the album to a peaceful end.
All in all, Secret Beasts is a solid album. Engel, a seasoned musician and vocalist, has a firm command over her sound, especially her impressive voice. Perhaps because of this, Engel lands in the Odd Music Sweetspot: true, she’s unconventional, but Secret Beasts is still a very approachable album. It does go on a little bit towards the end, but the last three songs make up for it, 4 stars out of 5.
tl;dr: Avant-garde done right, 4/5.
P.S.: As an independent artist, Clara does all of her work on her own. And making quality music ain’t cheap. Through audience and listener support, she was able to make Secret Beasts, and now she’s humbly asking our help for the follow up. Click here to contribute to the new album (and get your name in the credits!)