Title: Angel Boxes
Artist: Joe Frawley (Rachel Rambach, vocals)
Release Date: 2010 April 07
Genre: Experimental Vocal
License: CC BY-NC-ND
Label: Just Not Normal
The secret of the angels is found in energy of the collaboration between Joe Frawley and Rachel Rambach on this release. Initially Joe was uncertain how this work would be received, so he released it through the Just Not Normal netlabel, where I happened on it. From the opening of ‘Angel Box One’ I had goose bumps. This was not the typical release I had come to expect in the electronic music dominated netlabel scene, and it has remained one of my favorite works over the past four years.
The Secret Of The Angels
This is a short work (lasting only about twenty minutes from beginning to end) that packs a lot of punches. It is divided into two major segments: Angel Boxes One through Five, followed by five stand-alone pieces.
The Angel Boxes
The Angel Boxes are a series of vocal settings, each produced by electronically manipulating the wordless vocals of Rachel to produce the desired form, structure and sonic setting. The compositions themselves appear designed so that a single voice could record the parts, and then combined and processed to produce the final work. But, this is purely speculation. The vocal parts could be over-dubbed on each other.
‘Angel Box One’ opens with a simple series of harmonized lines, which then have a single voice descending figure added to the harmonized lines. The space in this box is very open, floating, allowing you to follow the vocals slowly downward as they spiral onward.
‘Angel Box Two’ opens in a similar manner, only now the harmonies are more closed and darker. The solo vocal line is not a simple descending figure, but moves along a more turbulent line, rising and falling on a whim. This is a more closed space, but hardly feels restrictive. More like trying to find your way through a room dimly lit by moonlight through a window.
‘Angel Box Three’ is a much more enclosed, restrictive space. Instead of the floating vocals of the first two pieces, the listener is confronted with a more rhythmic setting. Vocals float into the box as a form of counterpoint to the rhythmic drive to the main vocal.
‘Angel Box Four’ returns to a more open space with closed-harmony staccato vocals fading into and out of the box as they move from left to right across the space. A series of more ghost like, eerie vocals appears throughout the piece, summoning the presence of those who have been forgotten. They seem to be blocking the search for an exit by the staccato vocals.
‘Angel Box Five’ opens as with a similar closed-harmony vocal line as on ‘Angel Box Two’, only now they are in a very confined space. There is little to no echo to these vocals, they are very much in the foreground, almost as if they are challenging the listener. Other vocal lines fade in and out of the back with a slight bit of reverb around them.
Five Additional Tracks
‘Flase Memory’ introduces a prepared piano and spoken word vocal samples into the pallet of this recording. The spoken words appear as memories of a person searching in her mind, but cannot properly remember. Or is she possibly inventing the memories? This is open to the listener to interpret.
‘Looking Glass’ is a call and response structured work. A single voice sings a line which is repeated by a choir harmonizing the melody. It’s a piece of reflection. The melody is reflected and slightly refracted by the looking glass.
‘ext’ is possibly the most jolting work on the release. A prepared piano plays a drone over which loops of mouth sounds, breathing and ticks build a rhythm. The effect is unnerving.
‘Red Moon’ feels like a prayer to the night sky, but in a way you are not likely to have heard before. A solo vocal is suddenly swallowed into the deep echo of harmony lines, only to emerge again. Like the moon moving behind a cloud, only to emerge within a few seconds or minutes. It is a personification of they mysteries of the stars and skies few of us will ever know first hand and can only experience from the knowledge of what we can see.
‘My Lagan Love’ breaks from the vocal pieces of this recording. This is a gorgeous, melodic ballad played on the prepared piano that was used on several other works on this release. It’s a love letter to the Lagan river (it’s unclear if it’s the Lagan river in Ireland or Switzerland)
At the beginning of this review I said that the secret of the Angels was in the energy of the collaboration between Joe Frawley and Rachel Rambach. This is a rather odd concept when you consider how these compositions have been realized: Rachel Rambach singing the parts, and Joe taking them and manipulating them electronically. It doesn’t sound like it would be much of a collaboration.
However, I maintain that there is a very high level of collaboration in these works for several reasons. First, two compositions (‘False Memory’ and ‘Red Moon’) were co-written by Frawley & Rambach, and ‘Looking Glass’ was written by Rambach. Second there is a lot of detail in all of the vocal work on these pieces. These two things suggest to me that there was a lot of communication between these artists, and it was in that communication where the collaboration effort came to came into shape. I feel that both artists had a clear understanding of what they were trying to achieve from the beginning of the composition and recording process to the very end where the pieces were realized during the editing, assembly and production process.
I can’t speculate on the exact nature of the process they used (where parts were recorded linearly, then cut up an manipulated into their final structure, or if the parts were dubbed over each other). However, not knowing just adds to the mystery of this release, it makes the listener pay more attention to the interaction between the parts, pay more attention to the details of the electronics used on the individual vocal lines.
In the end this is a release that stands out because of all the subtleties and nuances in it. Even after four years of listening to it, I find I am captivated by it. I find myself being pulled into it and listening for more details, trying to unearth more of the secrets of the Angels.
(Final note: Joe has also made this release available on his BandCamp site. However, the release on his site does not include ‘My Lagan Love’. The tradeoff is, however, that a FLAC encoding of this release is available through his site, along with a limited edition CD release.)