Amber Asylum is a strings-based group led by Kris Force (who has played on albums by Swans, Neurosis and Matmos) and Jackie Gratz. Though considerably more restrained for the most part, there is something of Swans’ sense of coiled power and release on this, their fourth album. It’s a bewitching mix of ethereal melodies, ambient textures and classical forms, with Force’s violin and Gratz’s cello lending the album a lovely chamber music quality.
The tone is set by the intriguing opener, ‘Black Lodge’. It begins with a calm, almost military drum pattern, which is gradually bolstered by elegant string flourishes. As the track unfolds, the string sounds become longer and more drone-based. This basic structure recurs several times on the album, with Force adding chilly vocals to ‘Silence of the Setting Sun’ and ‘Disembodied Healer’. The approach pays repeated dividends, as the strings, voice and percussion coalesce with sinuous grace. Elsewhere, Amber Asylum play chamber music of ravishing beauty and precision on ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘Black Swan’, the latter (an aria from an opera called The Medium by Giancarlo Menotti) adding a darkly mesmerising oboe melody.
The closing ‘Black Sabbath’ (a version of a song of that name by the celebrated heavy metal band) sees the band taking a different approach. The strings are looser, heavier and drenched in feedback. The percussive attack is frantic and delirious, while Force’s voice approaches the scorching power of Swans’ Jarboe. The track, like the album as a whole, is testament to Amber Asylum’s success in fusing (post) rock and classical forms into an innovative and seamless whole.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 9, 2001)