Communication is at the core of Fountain, the exquisite and preternatural debut album from Berlin-based American vocalist Lyra Pramuk. This may seem an odd statement for an album made up entirely of vocals with few, if any, discernible words, but it is crucial to an understanding of how best to approach this work.
There is a range of emotions at play here and these are delivered through the absence of the limitations of linguistics. Pramuk uses her vocal abilities and technical know-how to morph, twist and stretch her singing, allowing an exploration of sonic timbres and aural textures over seven tracks that delight and beguile in equal measure, and which certainly produce no fixed meaning. Ethereal but also directly powerful, this is an album of contradictions, challenges, and should be considered an antidote not only to the COVID-19 lens through which the world is now seen, but to the increasing sense of insular nationalism that has gripped the geo-political landscape in the last four or five years at an ever-expanding pace. Pramuk does not deal in language as taught, but as understood. Hers is not a restrictive building block approach to conveying meaning. An instinctive reaction is required from the listener to the primal aspects of the human condition that are shared in the body of this work. You’ll understand when you listen to it.
There are echoes of Anonhi, Björk, Cocteau Twins and…wait for it…Terence Trent D’Arby across this album, although it has a bravery that perhaps the others named fall just a little shy of. Much like the times we are currently living in, Fountain is challenging, strange – yet full of hope.
“Witness” opens the album and works like a madrigal, except all of the intertwined and counterpointed voices are Pramuk’s. Washes of vocal incantation stretch over one another, each potentially usurping the last, depending on the focal point of the listener. The mix of the album, by Ben Pramuk, is astonishing and is both dense and airy, and is not overly prescriptive in terms of levels. The layers of sound that greet the listener are not hierarchical in presentation, as each new sound takes centre stage for a while before the next comes along. The amorphous quality of the voices fall somewhere between the Hopelandic style of Sigur Rós and Caroline Shaw’s 2013 work Partita.
“Tendril” comes next and pushes an quasi-doo-wop, barbershop style at the listener while delving into the deepened grains within Pramuk’s voice. There is a surprising similarity in vocal tone to “As Yet Untitled” by Terence Trent D’Arby in that both are androgynous and husky, though where D’Arby’s track has a clear narrative trajectory, on “Tendril” we are offered a vast range of breathy and emotive sounds which spiral in the way the song’s title would suggest.
There are moments of confrontation on the album. “Xeno” is five minutes of slow-building ennui and angst which is so densely packed as to be almost unbearable (in a good way). It shares the same whirling and claustrophobic tone as My Bloody Valentine’s often-overlooked track “Glider” and is delightfully incessant. “Gossip” uses vocal phasing and doubling techniques that would make Steve Reich proud. It feels like a study in psychoacoustics and here is the punch with the album – it is to be absorbed, enjoyed, but also deconstructed.
In terms of musical appreciation, it is difficult not to lean on the work of Roland Barthes and his conception of the grain of the voice when experiencing this album. Fountain is absolutely all about Barthes’ concept of the geno-song, wherein the enunciation of the voice is more important than the meaning of the words delivered. This takes us back to the point about communication, as Pramuk has produced a body of work that encapsulates the human condition whilst denying the listener any clear and anchored message. There is a sense that the emotive delivery is there to be interpreted; yet there is such a strength and honesty beneath all of the studio wizardry for the intelligent listener to break into Pramuk’s world with little resistance.
This is a life-affirming album which is not held back by the restrictions of linguistics and the limitations that words bring, and it may be just what you need to lift you out of yourself in these troubled times.