Album Review: Pauline Anna Strom – Angel Tears In Sunlight

[RVNG Intl.; 2021]

There’s an infamous scene in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life where, in the middle of a family drama featuring Brad Pitt, the viewer is treated to a brief interlude with CGI dinosaurs interacting on an ancient riverbed. It seems funny and weird at first, but if you can take it seriously as a really early example of consciousness and decision-making on Earth, its ties to the present begin to make sense. Perhaps, Malick seems to argue, their lives are more relevant to ours than we tend to recognize.

The eccentric San Francisco musician Pauline Anna Strom affectionately referred to her pet iguanas as dinosaurs, and Angel Tears in Sunlight showcases her “capacity to collapse time”, as the press kit notes. Strom, who passed away last December at the age of 74, self-released several albums in the 80s that were relatively unknown. Her output stopped for nearly three decades, until the New York City-based RVNG label remastered and re-released much of this early work on 2017’s Trans-Millenia Music compilation.

That excellent compilation recalled, to me, the late Joanna Brouk’s Hearing Music compilation in its ability to capture the essence of an oft-overlooked trailblazer in electronic music. Brouk, also a Bay Area mainstay of synth-work and also female in a historically male-dominated field (you can add Suzanne Ciani, who studied at Berkeley, to that list), created soundscapes that fall on the ambient side of things. Strom’s music is similarly expansive and relaxing, but it also reverberates with energy.

Strom practiced Reiki healing, a Japanese technique in which the healer transmits ‘universal energy’ via the qi life force. Surely practicing with a kind of timeless, boundless energy informed her habit of crafting music that reached back to primeval territories. Indeed, Angel Tears in Sunlight standout “Small Reptiles on the Forest Floor” rattles and shines with a prehistoric spirit, whereas “Temple Gardens at Midnight”, with its spacey Steve Roach-isms, will click with anyone who uses music to veg out and tap into the cosmos.

The music of Angel Tears in Sunlight is in no hurry, but stick around and it will take you to zones that breathe with ancient life. By the end of closer “Tropical Rainforest”, the forest has come alive as a brilliant symphony: the crickets chirping in time with the synths, the bubbling bogs brimming with curious fauna.

Note that, although her music reaches into the Triassic period, Strom’s skill as a musician was not stuck in the past: “Marking Time” suggests the MIDI work of James Ferraro more than any 20th century musician. This only makes her untimely passing more tragic, as clearly she was still capable of creating lasting music even in her older age. Thankfully, the fine folks at RVNG have revealed that they have some more Strom music to comb through and eventually release. Until then, Angel Tears in Sunlight serves as another worthy album from an unheralded talent.