Album Review: Nino Gvilia – ‘Nicole/Overwhelmed By The Unexplained’ : a surreal experimental song saga with an indefinable magic.

The Breakdown

This is not ‘art for art’s sake’ but a finely balanced use of the experimental and unexpected to entrance any listener.
Hive Mind Records 8.9

It’s been a challenge to keep up with the unravelling of singer songwriter Nino Gvilia’s recorded output over the last few months but now we’ve arrived at some sort of finale. Her exquisite ‘Nicole/ Overwhelmed by the Unexplained’ double EP is at last fully available in both digital and vinyl forms via the ever-resourceful Hive Mind Records.

The trail began way back in November last year with the release of the gently mysterious opaque romanticism of  the song Nicole followed a few weeks later by the fragile melodies of Last Trip. Murmurings of Bjork, Blue Nile and Sufjan could be heard rippling through Gvilia’s avant European folk music. By January the full sweep of the ‘Nicole’ EP was revealed as an intricately detailed web of electro-acoustic song threads, natural, celebratory yet emotionally fragile. The review of the collection at the time in Backseat (read HERE ) underlined the balance between poetry and invention, the Balkan-esque folk tones and the experimental twists, the playful artistry and subtle tension in these stories from a fragile planet.

The secret of the music’s magic was as illusive as the identity of the songwriter. Italian singer, sound and performance artist Giulia Deval had created Nino Gvilia as a fictional character that would allow her to imagine the songwriter’s place in a post-human world. ‘Nicole’ was the first expression of that role play and now comes the completion of the second instalment, the five songs of the ‘Overwhelmed by the Unexplained’ EP.

This second act of Deval’s dramatic probing may feature the same musicians (Zevi Bordovach on Keys/synths, Pietro Caramelli on guitars/electronics plus the tactile strings of Giulia Pecora and Clarissa Marino) but it takes on a more strident, disruptive stance. On ‘Overwhelmed by the Unexplained’ there is less of the folksy song form that nurtured ‘Nicole’ and more determined experimentalism to yank you out of any comfort zone. Here Deval/Gvilia is asking the questions more directly. Take the acapella discussion of Dirty is just what has boundaries where Gvilia with her choir repeat and fragment the title phrase then step back as if to listen. The recorded voices of those eminent thinkers biologist Lynn Margulis and anthropologist Anna L.Tsing are introduced, their thoughts paired as if in conversation while the choir theatrically murmurs “dirty, dirty” as a backing. There’s an air of Slapp Happy operatics about the piece that’s softened with a calm Laurie Anderson-like application.

The Overwhelmed by the Unexplained track itself also uses the gravitas of spoken word to underpin the messaging. This time it’s Gvilia’s voice, echoing over a vaulted drone, which offers up lines that bow with a sense of prayer. “And the tree spans around me, forming the great valley in which I rest” she concludes before the choir peep up and the strings yearn. Here the collection ends as two AI toned voices exchange some darker blessing. 

It’s clear that through the Nino Gvilia persona, Giulia Deval is able to pursue serious discussions without alienating anyone tuning in. On this second, partnering EP the songs maybe less conventional but nothing seems contrived. This is not ‘art for art’s sake’ but a finely balanced use of the experimental and unexpected to entrance any listener. The opening track Anders may draw on philosopher Günther Anders’ ideas about mankind’s gift for self-destruction but it does so through the enticing flow of a minimal organ pattern and Gvilia’s richly melodic vocal. Any song which combines an emotional swoon with the hook “blindness to the world apocalypse” would surely get Peter Hammill’s endorsement.

Such contrasts consistently thread through the ‘Overwhelmed by the Unexplained’ set of songs adding to their character and, at times, a quirky charm. The exquisite Those Who Care harks back to the tunes on the ‘Nicole’ collection gliding along with its finger plucked simplicity, Gvilia’s whispering softness and restrained chamber quartet accents. Until you get to the midpoint that is, where the singer breaks into some Newsom-esque vocal improv as the strings cling on in a giddy free fall. The sparky, almost Brechtian, Rain On Paliastomi inverts this sequence, pitching agitated plinks, clicks and a witty scat with a waltzing accordion sway of a chorus line. This song aches so genuinely for Gvilia’s home city of Poti in Georgia that you forget entirely about the disguise within which this beguiling music has been written and delivered.

It’s such layers of complexity, in style, ideas, performance and approach that binds both EP’s together. Stepping back now you recognise that neither ‘Nicole’ or ‘Overwhelmed by the Unexplained’ would have made such an impact if they existed without each other. The spell-binding voice and music of Nino Gvilia never loses its power through this ten song saga and they retain a sense that here we have one of those releases that will remain enticingly mysterious forever.    

Get your copy of ‘Nicole/Overwhelmed By The Unexplained‘ by Nino Gvilia from your local record store or direct from Hive Mind Records HERE

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