Isolation is all around us, its inescapable grasp clutching us to its shard-like chest as 2020 wheezes its way to its last quarter. The year has been one of separation and distance – from what we are used to, those we love, and that which we love doing. We are, by all accounts, social animals, and although some have no doubt thrived under enforced lockdown, for many it has been a time of reflection, turmoil and deep despair. Routine has been replaced, and with it, for a good number, purpose has been lost. Such things shouldn’t be understated, and even though it’s maybe human nature to trudge forward in hope of a better tomorrow, there is always the nagging feeling of existential drain that comes with intelligence and awareness of one’s own mortality.
Alexandra Drewchin, aka Eartheater, composed and recorded her fourth studio album Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin over a 10-week period, during an artist’s residency for FUGA in Zaragoza, Spain. There is an undoubted sense of isolation that pierces Phoenix to its very core, perhaps resembling the sense of alienation felt from being in another country.
The guitar work across the album feels distant, with slight reverb giving a sense of detachment across tracks such as “Airborne Ashes” and “How to Fight”. This envelopes the listener in the same way that Grouper manages to entice and enthral, with the spaces between the notes being all important. With Eartheater, the gaps in instrumentation usually afford her the opportunity to let her vocals soar and swoop, but on Phoenix’s more sombre tracks there is an air of reflection that stymies this inclination.
“Metallic Taste of Patience” is a beautifully orchestrated (mostly) instrumental piece that bears resemblance to Scott Walker’s brooding soundtrack record for The Childhood of a Leader. Sweeping orchestration combines with sumptuous and poised harps on “Below the Clavicle”, while Drewchin’s vocals soothe and squeal in clashing, contradictory phrases. The oblique layers of sound combine to create a lush tapestry of aural magnificence that is subdued with moments of harsh vocalisation to stir the listener away from their induced reverie.
“Volcano” is the album’s centrepiece and it is an exquisite slice of dreampop, with the vocals pushing everything else to the background. Drewchin shows here that she can write a killer hook like the best of them – she just chooses not to most of the time. The track’s opening lyric of “Pulling the plug could be the ultimate anti-drug / But I’m addicted to this life,” highlights the central narrative of the record as a whole: that there is beauty in the world and a sense of optimism in the face of such crushing uncertainty and disquiet. It’s the track on Phoenix with the most straightforward melodic structure and it sits perfectly at the halfway point, a gatekeeper between the more acerbic first half and the gentler closing. Its metaphor of volcanic fire affirms the theme of the restorative cyclical patterns of life; ideas of contemplative development and growth abound throughout the record.
“Mercurial Nerve” is a vocal piece that uses studio wizardry to distort, stretch and transmogrify Drewchin’s voice. The song begins with her voice overlaid several times to create a washed-out harmony, before the constituent aspects break apart into fractured little pieces, all of which still retain trace elements of their larger embodied parts. In common with the work of Lyra Pramuk, Eartheater uses her voice, with its vulnerability and viscerality, in combination with the cognitive design of music production. It’s the perfect marriage between the spectral and the specialist.
Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin is a move away from Eartheater’s more beat-centred recent output, and has a thematic centre which previous albums such as 2018’s glorious Irisiri made no pretence in having. The album is an alluring, heady mix of skewed folktronica, avant garde noise and opulent orchestral tones which combine to cement Eartheater’s place in every discerning music fan’s end of year lists.