Julia Holter fits the bedroom musician bill as long as the defining tie between all functional bedroom acts is a sense of reflective, introverted isolation. But the level of sophistication and ambition on display in the Los Angeles musician’s work so far exceeds those perimeters that Ekstasis as a product of time tinkering within the confines of a bedroom is hardly worth mentioning. Holter is a music school graduate with a background in classical piano, pioneering an invitingly skewed vision of pop music. She’s cemented herself as a part of LA’s music landscape with ties to acts like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Nite Jewel, but feels as connected to a scene or any trending sonic touchtones in modern indie as she does to the bedroom. Her most identifiable contemporaries might be artists like Grouper or Julianna Barwick; artists who recontextualize ambient music with an ear for pop immediacy or vice versa. Yet Holter’s pallet goes far (far) beyond loops, synths, and acoustic balladry.
Julia Holter’s debut, last year’s Tragedy, was a joyfully meandering dream. Its eight tracks were coated in a layer of unabashedly tenebrous tape hiss, dallying in crackling field recordings of everything from compressed fog horns to murmuring animal sounds to pieces of midday street theater. It was a record that immersed the listener in an abstracted sense of reality, steeped in patient dream logic, bits of memory and emotion rearing up in exultant pop exercises like coalescent watercolors forming briefly into cinematically vivid revelations, before subsiding again into intangibility and moving on to search unconsciously for its next destination. The descriptor ‘pop’ was a broad facet, built from melodic drones, metallic textures, brass, fully convicted vocals, and primeval drum loops. Tragedy surprised in its transcendent heights and its pervasive atmosphere; enough so that the strength of its songwriting seemed like an added bonus and any scrutiny beyond the record’s tonal and emotional attributes might have been misplaced.
It’s staggering, then, the amount of attention placed upon Tragedy‘s follow up, Ekstasis‘ tightened left-field song structures. Holter has done away with the intermediary elements of field recordings, mechanical hiss, and silence found on last year’s outing. Ekstasis is clearly defined and immediate by comparison even if the tracks still unfold like intricately-constructed origami, stumbling upon its pop leanings in cathartic bursts of organic color. Ekstasis‘ arrangements are bulging with diverse instrumentation choices, touching on chamber music, drone, classical, jazz, electro, Mid Eastern, Asian and African world music, gracefully finding a throughway between all these influences to create an unlikely but singular blend under a layer of crinkled aged newness. It’s the type of music I imagine when most people describe Grimes‘ weirdo, ‘post-Internet’ pop.
Take opener, “Marienbad,” for example. The track changes course maybe four or five times, exchanging glugging electric pianos and spidery harpsichords for a trance-inducing coda of rhythmic vocal “ha-ha-ha”s and a pounding kick before a rollicking marching band drum fill announces the flood of a spiraling, shimmering synth hook like a golden cloud break riding the lapis horizon. Ekstasis‘ pop moments justify its brazenly experimental by existing at sharp odds. It can be a breathtaking dynamic, especially with the varying amounts of restraint Holter shows when she does single-mindedly pursue her vertical sense of melody. A third of the way into “Our Sorrows” the track descends into an analog drone while Holter murmurs unintelligible hymns, revealing as much as mystifying, before the track erupts into a marching 4/4 while the singer unleashes some cooing “la-la-la”s, moving from incense-burning religiosity to joyous, one-with-everything abandon in the space of a measure. It’s simply marvelous.
Listing the various destinations where each of the tracks tread is a little dizzying. Single, “In The Same Room” is a halting, almost-familiar take on synth pop before it pools like runny paint into tangled streams of primary-colored ambience while Holter hums wordlessly, wrapped up in it all. “Boy In The Moon” wouldn’t be out of place on a Kranky album, its spread-eagled drones stretching out to form an omni-dimensional cocoon as sharpened piano notes pierce its fabric and Holter’s voice stretches with it. “Goddess Eyes II,” a redux of a track from Tragedy, builds a gigantic chorus of voices, strings, and synths around a vocoded phrase until its scraping the sky, handclaps snapping like celery stalks. “Four Gardens” is perhaps the most eclectic track with its sing-song rhythm, Asian melodies, and honking saxophones.
Ekstasis is a challenging listen, but a rewarding one. It’s fiercely experimental and aggressively unfamiliar. Yet it’s an album that doesn’t try to intimidate or hide within its unfamiliarity. There’s a looseness to the purposeful playing and song structures that adds a distinctly human edge and Holter herself is a comforting and illuminating presence. From the record’s start, she seemingly offers a hand for the listener to hold onto as if she’s excited to show you places you’ve never been before. After the record culminates into its roiling crescendos and subsides again, it truly feels like you’ve left Holter’s futuristic antique atmosphere with something you hadn’t arrived with.