Just when you think you’re starting to understand the mind of Julia Holter, she throws a serious curveball, landing you somewhere in The Crusades.
The LA-based avant-garde musician has a thing for a very literary kind of history. Her 2011 debut 'Tragedy' brought us on an atmospheric journey to ancient Greece, particularly a staging of Euripides’ Hippolytus. 2013’s ‘Loud City Song’, which saw Holter crafting a thrillingly alive but also handily accessible album inspired by Colette’s novella Gigi.
For her fifth studio album, ‘Aviary’, we’re thrown about through time between the Middle Ages, the present day, and some Blade Runner-style dystopia. Lyrics from Medieval Occitan songs sit alongside phonetic translations of a Napalese Buddhist’s song, while Vangelis-esque synth orchestration floats above it all. Where her previous record, ‘Have You In My Wilderness’, felt her most accessible, Aviary might just be her most dense and perplexing. But, given time and real care, it’s easy to discover the beauty that lies within, even if the meaning might escape you sometimes.
‘Underneath The Moon’, which references the St Vitus’ Dance, a medieval case of mass hysteria, is a stunningly upbeat number. Alongside the jazz-inflected bass, playful 80s synths that feel straight from the mind of Mark Mothersbaugh skip through the song.
Compare that to the cacophony of sirens that makes up ‘Everyday Is An Emergency’, the discordant, shrill cries of some impending danger, and you can see the two sides of ‘Aviary’. The puckish and the perplexing. The puckish emerges even more on tracks like 'Chaitius' and ‘Voce Simul’, the latter of which uses a strange medieval technique called hocketing to create a babbling intensity. It’s the chattering of a mind trying to formulate thoughts, taking you right into the creative process.
As is ritual in a Julia Holter record, in amongst the moments that leave you a little shellshocked with confusion, are truly breathtaking ones. ‘Colligere’ at once feels like a classical pastoral symphony, and a Boards of Canada style experimentation. The clash of the natural and the machine builds into something that gels in such a beautiful way.
A product of solo improvisations, 'Aviary' seems more open to interpretation than any of Holter’s other records. It’s as flitting as our lives; darting back and forth between the past, the present and the future to create something which isn’t quite of any of them. It’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes a cacophonous mess; a perfect depiction of a mind filled to the brim with thoughts, ideas, anxieties and love.
'Aviary' is an album that needs fully digging into; immersing yourself in the atmosphere that Holter creates with the lush arrangements and often baffling turns. Answers are never going to just come to you, if there even are answers to begin with. It’s almost as though Holter presents her ideas to you and asks you to form what you will from them.
Perhaps her most opaque record to date, it’s not likely to turn sceptics around. But for those used to Holter’s dazzlingly expansive combination of sometimes jazzy, sometimes baroque orchestration and moody ambience, ‘Aviary’ is an album worth getting to know.