Birds of Passage, Winter Lady

Luke Carrell

Listening on:

An AIWA HS-G34. This compact Walkman-esque little unit not only boasts an auto reverse function, it also has a surprisingly sensitive EQ control sliders that consist of treble, bass, and the spectrum of sound known only as “Super Bass,” which is mysteriously similar to normal bass. This EQ function also allows it to have a “metal” mode, which allows it to properly play a CrO2/metal tape, which was the top of the line cassette format of its day.

The artist:
Birds of Passage is the solo moniker of New Zealand’s Alicia Merz, whose breathy and supremely emotive vocals steer her spare compositions through their fictional spaces.

The music:
At times, Winter Lady recalls the dark, minimal folk of Current 93 and Coil, but functions less as a meditation on morbidity than a semi-narrative exploration of euphoria and an eerily familiar kind of helpless torment. That’s not to suggest that the music goes to extremes in any way. Restraint and balance form the tracks’ spine, with an omnipresent sense of space growing directly out of the hum, hiss, and endless reverb that hangs behind the instruments and vocals. That haunted feel, along with the lyrics’ preoccupation with implies a ragged edge that the spare and often unsteady instrumentation seems to flit around. Rather than feeling pared down, the tracks feel self-contained and whole in the context of its own simplicity. It’s the sort of music that makes you wish snow were falling outside and you had nowhere to go.

How it sounds:
The grit of the tape heightens the effect of the subtle, omnipresent “background sound,” while also fostering the illusion that it’s mostly the tape itself creating these effects. Repeated listens only made it even more confusing, which ultimately let to my giving up and just enjoying the songs. In other words, this is really excellent to listen to on cassette, and while this is contemplative headphones music, it has enough body to it that it would likely take on a grander quality played out of speakers.

The full package:

The color palate of the packaging is dominated by pale blue hues, with a quaint font that adds a little bit of a Middle Earth feel. The cassette itself is also blue. This is all very charming, until you realize that there’s a depiction of a girl tied to a post and covered in blood on the inside cover. There’s that menacing touch we were all half waiting for.

Listening/Looking:

“Away with the Night” is a plaintive, fluidly structured track that fleshes out both its most dissonant and melodic qualities. Click to listen.

The video for “Hollow” superimposes the breathy music box lament of the song over a halting but elegant Lumière vignette of a Loie Fuller “butterfly girl” performance.

'Hollow' by 'birds of passage' from birds of passage on Vimeo.

Birds of Passage’s Winter Lady is now available from Bathetic Records

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