Album Review: Grace Cummings – Storm Queen

[ATO; 2021]

To say Grace Cummings sings songs is something of an understatement. On her new album, Storm Queen, the Australian artist uses her voice like a force of nature: it can devastate as much as it can bring a surprising sense of relief. At her fiercest, like on the Dylan-esque single “Up In Flames”, she snarls the titular phrase with an incandescent rage that could light up a city during a blackout. Equally, when she strips back the attack, her vocals are disarmingly delicate and tender. On “Two Little Birds” she sounds almost disheveled, torn apart and picking herself off the ground piece by piece. She doesn’t just sing the song; she is the song.

And it’s not just her voice that Cummings uses with a vehement purpose. She wields her acoustic guitar like barbed wire, a jagged set of strings that add threatening weight to her words. On the optimistic and reservedly jubilant “Raglan”, her strums of guitar are like jolts of electricity, while on the phenomenal “Storm Queen” it’s like a force strong enough to demolish a building.

When she adds in additional instruments too, they can feel bluntly forceful, if not strongly deliberate motions to accentuate the songwriting. The somewhat surprising, ambling, folksy fiddle on “Freak” and “Here Is The Rose” bring an unexpected light, even weightless feeling to the tracks (no doubt influenced by her and her father’s love of Irish folk music and melodies), while on “Heaven” the tambourine flourishes are played like castanets, giving the song an almost demented flamenco feel.

Cummings’ skill as an actor plays to her favour here. She knows not to over utilize big dramatic moments – and not just with her vocal ferocity. She adds in some delicate piano atop the finger picked guitar notes on “Two Little Birds”, like the titular animals playfully soaring in the sky. At the other end of the spectrum is the aforementioned “Storm Queen” where reverberating, low piano chords, timpani, and Harry Cooper’s vengeful saxophone playing swirl together to create a tempest of thundering noise. Come final track “Fly A Kite” a theremin is even thrown into the mix, and with its alien, operatic moans it feels perfectly fitting next to Cummings’ guitar and mournful voice. She knows when to unleash a snarl or reduce the performance to a whisper, and listening to Storm Queen can feel like being transfixed by a solo stage performer with nothing more than a spotlight on them.

Compared to her 2019 debut Refuge Cove, Cummings feels much more comfortable in her own skin here. While both are folk records at their hearts, on Storm Queen she moves beyond the label with deliberate vigor. Most of the tracks were caught in the first few takes, and Cummings self-produced the record too; the result feels undeniably exciting at the best moments, an instinctual, impulsive album that doesn’t feel overly fussed over.

While every track might not leave you a little breathless like “Storm Queen”, “Heaven”, and “Up In Flames” (and the stodgy “The Day In May” is something of a forgettable dud), the album still lingers in your head after it’s over. Phrases like “It’s winter now / And I feel like Robert Frost”, “I weigh 61 again”, or the way she simply sings her syllables (the lingered on, biting final “s” of “You’re one of those freaks”; the vocal gymnastics of “Ave Maria” on “Heaven”) are like scars she digs into your back with her nails.

“I always have things very close to the surface—it’s actually harder for me to just exist in the normal world,” Cummings has explained, and the album makes this sentiment all the more understandable. On Storm Queen she’s an actor given complete creative freedom with a classic text; the voice of an avenging angel; a ballet dancer performing with a sharpened sabre in hand. Summoning thunderclouds and hurricanes with her inflections and rippling vocal cords, she is the Storm Queen through and through.