Album Review: Madeleine Cocolas – Spectral

[ROOM40; 2022]

Spectral began with the outside world. Armed with her phone, Madeleine Cocolas recorded various sounds as she went about her life: stormy weather, industrial machinery, the distant sound of life happening somewhere not too far off. The Australian composer and producer then began taking these sounds and building on them. “It felt very natural to then build layers over the top of them, to be able to express some of the emotions that the sounds triggered, of memories from the moments from when they were captured,” she says of the album’s creation. From the outside world she weaved her own smaller microcosms, where the eight tracks that make up her new album have atmospheres that are at times perfume-esque and at others moments like a dropping barometer reading.

For all its darker hues, Spectral begins with something of a red herring. “A Memory, Blown Out” is an ethereal piece consisting of a choir of drawn out wordless vocals, like something taken directly from a Julianna Barwick album. It’s peaceful, wrapped up in a hymnal aura, and like slipping into a bath of warm water that’s at the exact temperature you want. An album of this kind of music would be serene and welcome, but from there Cocolas burrows deeper. Her voice still skirts around other tracks here though, a wordless coo that adds texture and, at the album’s most alien moments, a human anchor.

When “Presence” draws from its low end groans and rumblings to a swell of shadowy noise, the whole thing feels like a black hole swallowing the track as starry ripples of piano flutter beneath the weight of the electronic noise. It’s an effect she uses heavily in the album’s mid section: “Northern Storm” fizzles with its almost sub-bass beat and electronic dark clouds, like an Arca track that’s been deconstructed and slowed down; “And Then I Watch It Fall Apart” juxtaposes a careful piano figure against what sounds like a flittering spaceship engine going into hyperdrive before slowing down in the track’s final moments. These drawn-out crescendoing junctures are the swelling heart of the album that the surrounding tracks seems to build up to and then away from.

Yet, there’s still a feeling of disconnectivity present. Despite these eight tracks formed from the same impetus of field recording, there’s a certain connective tissue that seems missing. While many of these songs might contain the same swirl of ingredients (vaporous backdrops, mindful and sometimes judicious piano figures, inky electronic noise), the space in between seems lacking a fibre that draws it all together to make a fully fulfilling document. 

Granted though, the music on Spectral is that that is best fallen into and not explored excessively with deconstructive thoughts (the irony thus of this review is not lost on this writer). One could tinker over words to explain the way the electronic pulse and background noises seem to erupt from the piano chords of “Resonance”, or how the surprising jazzy guitar chords on closing number “Rip” are played until all the achromatic reverberence seeps out and the whole track is atmosphere, but the effects do rather disappear by doing so. Apart from those two centerpieces, Cocolas never lingers on a moment too long; most of the tracks here settle around the four minute mark, which feels like just enough time to breathe in the surrounding air and then move on. 

It’s a feeling perhaps best executed on “Enfold”, as piano chords are played over background noises of distant chatter and cars driving by. It’s like taking a moment to pause and lie in a small patch of grass in the middle of a city centre. Life keeps going, but there’s beauty in the intermission. For these few minutes at a time, the outside world can wait.