SUPPLYING the power of her violin to Arcade Fire from their breakthrough smash Neon Bible on; founding member of exploratory instrumental sextet Bell Orchestre, alongside Richard Parry, whose career has run contiguously with the former band; solo artist in her own right, Sarah Neufeld has her fingers in many Canadian musical pies.
Initially releasing her material on that mecca of all things leftfield north of the 49th parallel, Constellation – home to her 2013 album Hero Brother, a beguiling and heady mix of violin rootsiness refracted through a more experimental lense, much as with Mary Lattimore on the harp and William Tyler with the guitar, she showed a willingness to explore which ran on through the more angular, atmospheric two-handed with Colin Stetson in 2015, Never Were The Way She Was, and her last solo outing, The Ridge, five years back now.
Detritus, we’re told, originated with a collaboration: in 2015 Sarah was invited to appear on stage with dancer and choreographer Peggy Baker, who was to perform a solo piece based on The Ridge, to which Sarah added a new lyrical prelude.
The result was reportedly incendiary; the two artists agreed to reunite for a full-length show with Baker’s company, for which Sarah would write and perform the music.
Baker had conceived the show around the title of Neufeld’s prelude, “Who We Are In The Dark”, exploring themes of loss, betrayal and the emptiness of space; Sarah was having a dark time herself, with a relationship having ended. Together they drew on those raw feelings; unexpectedly, Sarah found herself undergoing something of an emotional catharsis, finding tenderness, even love, in the movements of the dancers before her.
The work premiered in February 2019 and Sarah saw an album to be distilled from the performance music. And so Detritus was born, with influences ranging from the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók to Aphex Twin.
She took some of these pieces and experiments out on the road, to perform at her own solo gigs. In realising the album, she worked with her Arcade Fire bandmate Jeremy Gara, whose drums, synths and ambient electronics co-anchored the Peggy Baker shows; she fleshed them out with her signature foot pedal bass synth and ethereal vocals and called on Bell Orchestre compatriot Pietro Amato, for French horn, and Stuart Bogie for some dazzling flute.
Sarah says of “Stories” and the album as a whole: “I was inspired by both a sense of interior aloneness, and a sense of deep intimacy; within both, a profound questioning of identity and intention, and ultimately, a grieving over one’s former sense of self. The stories we’ve told ourselves that we can no longer believe.
“Nestled within deep layers of comfort, familiarity, and solace, I’m able to repeat myself again and again, never learning, never looking back. Simultaneously becoming wiser and more ignorant as the years wind on, beauty and grace exist even here, in this rift.”
Detritus presents as seven tracks, but it’s depth and quality and not width we’re in the business of experiencing here. Opener “Stories” came as an announcing single drop, so come join me in this taster; you’ll find the audiovisuals you need down at the end there. “Stories” both aims for, and bullseyes, a particularly dark ethereal grace, a touch of the This Mortal Coils in its filigree and shadow, the otherworldly soar of Julianna Barwick; wordless vocal grace taking flight over a twining of synth and violin with a lush, sombre, mitteleuropean folksy feel. You can detect a little of Arcade Fire’s folksier edge, necessarily; even for me, a little of Spacemen 3’s “Ecstasy Symphony”, Górecki. It’s chamber music and post-rock all at once. Luscious. Sarah’s wordless singing transports you.
“Unreflected” relents not a jot with its verdant, bittersweet atmospheres, taking you gently by the hand and leading you further down Sarah’s conceptual path. It’s sombre, graceful, like the play of thundercloud across a hillscape; not unrelentingly grey, shafts of light and bright melodicism casting new focus first here, then there. It’s an essay in violin eddying upward in the burnished warmth of delay and bass, wrapped against the world.
“With Love And Blindness” begins in a liquid violin lament with a klezmer skirl, that pedal bass humming and lowering in cahoots with timpani, other percussion slicing and skittering across. It seems more sparse, more solitary somehow, as if Sarah has ventured beyond her recent boundaries. Distant vocals bring another colour as tone by tone the violin grows more insistent in its theme, the percussion gaining a semi-industrial power. You can sense darker things at the corner of your vision, where the wild things are.
“The Top” shines sun-bright, has elements of a traditional reel, is the sound of a violinist of incredible talent and power delighting in what she can tumble forth. And tumble she does, glimmering melody flowing forth, little mantric repeats burrowing you in, little licks of melody curling off like flame. As with the preceding track, there’s a will to hurry forth, to run forward, maybe away from the emotional darkness Sarah was enduring, careening towards a better place. And again distant voices, mixed to a spectral distance, allow a human witness and colour. Those vocals knit the song together with a real magical beauty.
“Tumble Down The Undecided” – a curious title, maybe implying that without action we’re lost, the procrastination of Hamlet, &c – unfolds over nine minutes and more and is the longest single piece herein. It has thrum, it has singing drone, it has an intense folk beauty, and reminds me of A Winged Victory for the Sullen in that breathless resonance. A piece to delight in, to whirl in, the drums grandstanding and the whole piece elevating into flight. I’d love to see the dance interpretation of this song; the fluidity, the suppleness. It seems impossible that Sarah could play any faster, bring anymore expression and intent, and yet she does, a dervish of the instrument. Even Warren Ellis would be pushed to bring more supernature to the playing as it crescendos with a barely tamed howl. Phew. Wide-eyed.
And you may think you can step back dust yourself down, as “Shed Your Dear Heart” begins with a plaintive figure, attendant on the title – that moment, perhaps, of loss, when it actually feels ripped from your chest – but it then moves into a widescreen, cyclical figure, drums and a murmuring synth weaving through in counterpoint and it builds with a Godspeed intensity, the waves of sorrow and detachment hitting. The electronic elements foreground on this track more than elsewhere, and by the soaring middle it’s almost approaching Max Cooper or Late Night Final as a stirring piece of epic, ambient IDM. Which is quite some thing for a violin-led piece to be. Sarah’s fluency is stunning.
It’s been a hell of a journey, no prisoners taken, which falls away from view in the closing title track: “Detritus”: waste or debris. The ashes; the remains. “Detritus” does ease back a little on the deep flights we’ve been on, is maybe a touch calmer, but only a touch; that bass current tugs and nips, never allows for repose, as Sarah plays out melodies of both grace and quiet desolation that ring in echo.
Detritus is a potent draught, and maybe not one to be drunk in a carefree manner. It’s mood music of really rather incredible evocation, never so dark that you could accuse it of being depressing; but always poignant, pierced, that heightened state of sadness and pain that permits beauty and grace and suchlike to exist within and alongside it, rather than flat and drained of colour. It’s bright, immersive and makes you wish you could achieve such articulation with an instrument as to play out any woes, send them singing to the world refashioned as beauty.
Keep the curtains open at nightfall, even past it; drop the needle. Immerse. An immensely thoughtful musical study that takes the violin to other places, never not folk and/or modern compositional, but also painting in the hues of a post-rock palette.
Sarah Neufeld’s Stories will be released by One Little Independent digitally, on CD and on vinyl on May 14th; you can pre-order yours now.