Mary Knoblock - Halo (Album Review)


The philosophy of dualism asserts a distinct separation between physical and mental states, emphasizing the differentiation of the "soul" and the body. But where does this division truly lie?

Some artists dedicate themselves to carving out niche paths to the nether regions of the musical landscape and the collective unconscious. One such artist is the prolific Mary Knoblock, an Oregon-based performer who eschews commercialism in favour of soulful expressionism and otherworldly vibe-mongering. On her new album, Halo, Knoblock constructs a transcendental space replete with translucent synths, acoustic instrumentation, crème brûlée-delicate vocals, and unconventional production and mixing techniques. This amalgam draws the listener in with its peculiarities, offering somewhat of a spiritual cleanse, thanks to its high levels of openness, but it also often lands on more ominous moments. There is little holding Knoblock back. Will the vocals dazzle? Irrelevant. Knoblock removes ego from her work, submitting like a telephone exchange operator working the night shift, buzzed out on coffee, to transmitting signals between this world and the next.

And while this all might sound a tad on the whimsical side of dramatic, Knoblock pulls it off with an experimental flair. The minimalist percussive hits, deeply resonant piano strikes, and eerie vocals of the opening track "Halo" set out a language of anything-goes, perhaps made-in-a-weekend punkesque attitude held together by the unavoidable structure of time. "Heaven's Bride" uses its reverb well and sets out an expansive and rather remarkable cut, sounding somewhere between Grouper's washed-out bliss and Enya's softness and New-Age mystique. However, Knoblock is perennially sui generis through a kind of detached, careless approach; sometimes heavenly vocals mixed beside sometimes out-of-key, rough ones, like on the roaming "Chrome".

Other times, this sense of unease is brought to extremes ("Don't Forget Me," "Lucky"), where a woozy atmosphere is created by the intense mid-range, making for a somewhat disorienting experience. As is the case for the "Avant Garde" version of "Today"; a horror-show element sinisterly juxtaposed with the theme of spirituality by way of traditionally religious symbols (the cover art of a fallen angel, the title, the sepulchral "Saints Prayer"). It's trippy and soothing, but also kind of evil in the dark ambient/metal sense of the word. Knoblock's artistic edge is more clear and direct on "She Just Got Lucky," where the words are uncharacteristically comprehensible ("Sometimes I just want to stay in the hospital a little bit longer"), the album highlight "Oh Most Beautiful Flower of Carmel", where Knoblock more deflty reigns her unyieldy voice to produce a haunted song that often lands on major-key beauty, as well as the psychedelic, easy-listening swing of the instrumental closing track "Dreamer."

A compelling listening experience, Halo by Mary Knoblock is not for the faint of heart, but those who want to experience someone else's consciousness through off-kilter, sometimes beauteous dark ambient music will be delighted.