Monday, October 5, 2009

The haunting enigma of Bat for Lashes

I’m not entirely sure why someone would want to change their name from the perfectly respectable “Natasha Khan” to the rather enigmatic “Bat for Lashes”, other than to be enigmatic – but, be that as it may, Two Suns is a great (and, yes, enigmatic) album by this excitingly original and yet darkly beautiful English/Pakistani singer.

The music itself reminded me of a kind of fusion of the high, pure tones of Kate Bush and the daring uses of melody and instrumentation of Björk. The sound is always deceptively approachable: stunning singing; bold, blossoming backings; but all wrapped in a kind of rich darkness, like black velvet, haunting and yet still beautiful. Everywhere you look there are interesting, original uses of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre.

The songs on Two Suns have a remarkable tendency to start off as something simple and unassuming, and then turn, sometimes suddenly, sometimes so gradually that you don’t realise it’s happening, into incredibly complex melodies soaring above, and entwining with, fascinatingly original combinations of instruments - piano, harpsichord, harp, guitar - that sound like they belong to some far away time, some far away place, while still seeming to grow out of your very soul. Listen, for example, to “Peace of Mind”, with its almost ancient strings, strumming and plucking away against the sinister pleas of the vocal line – alien and indigenous at the same time.

The music always has a sense of enormity about it, sometimes majestic, often ghostly – sweeping melodies that take you into an ethereal stratosphere, like they do in “Glass”; big, sumptuous sounds, like the pounding timpani in “Siren Song”; eerie metallic keyboards, like those that underpin the other-worldly, echoing melodies of “Moon and Moon”.

But, more often than not, you arrive in these enormous spaces by first taking hesitant, faltering steps – little tentative, almost nervous, grabs of melody that build in strength and confidence and end up driving titanic phrases and choruses of dark, wonderful beauty.

The album finishes with “The Big Sleep” where Bat for Lashes is joined in a haunting, apocalyptic duet, by Scott Walker – another singer who does some incredibly original and shattering stuff (see 30 August) just through the power of a beautiful voice, and through trusting it to stay beautiful even when it’s used in unusual ways. The ethereal, searing voice of Bat for Lashes; the grim, hesitant yet rich baritone whispering lines of Scott Walker; the barren, chilling, electronically distorted piano – it all creates an overwhelming ending to an album that has already overwhelmed in so many ways.

For me, the real strength of Two Suns lies in Bat for Lashes’ extraordinary knack of taking odd, even eccentric, elements and turning them into works of astonishing, if dark, musical beauty. And it is that, even more than the name of its creator, which makes this album such a wonderful, evocative enigma.

A truly creative and original work – and, once again, my thanks to Lucas for his recommendation.

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