Christina Vantzou – No. 4 (Kranky, 2018)


Vantzou’s work has always had a certain cinematic, gauzy magic to it. Often times it deeply reminds me of Brian McBride’s solo work (unsurprising given their collaborative The Dead Texan project together), but No. 4 begins to feel a little breakaway. Not that this is any way a bad thing; indeed this sentiment of motion and change is something that runs right through her fourth full length.

It’s difficult at times to pin down the how of the change exactly; for example,”At Dawn” is a lush little number that balloons in pulsating string movements as the day inflates, clouds slipping out of darkness as their underbellies catch the glowing rays. It radiates and hums and churns and wouldn’t sound out of place on any of her records. And yet there’s an echoic quality to it that makes it seem as though in a bubble, this start of a new day bouncing off imaginary walls, a glass ceiling.

Mid-album “No. 4 String Quartet” has a similar attitude, glowing with drone foundations and gently heaving stringed miscellany crooning outwards in light, slow strokes. It feels familiar, yet tentative, almost unsteady or unsure of itself as it leans out across the chasm of change.

Other times the motion is obvious: opening “Glissando For Bodies and Machines In Space” sees Vantzou’s spectral vocal cries melt through a cavernous void, falling sinking slipping away as drones rise up and threaten to overwhelm the fragility of the scene, dragging our orbital captive back to Earth. Passage is also overtly referenced in the dark muteness of “Doorway”, all sparse piano reachings and abyssal stretches of stringed drone, afeared of what’ll happen if one opens the door and crosses the threshold. Fear in the quiet unknown, in rooms of possibility beyond our present self.

The latter half of the record becomes preoccupied with the darkness there; humble “Staircases” sees the piano decay in steps, a cold air deepening as the footfalls ring out into the lonely space projecting ahead of us. It heaves into “Sound House”, a nightmare pit of haunting energy and restrained anger, reverberant chords singing off the confining walls before the molten chorals close in eerie pitch-bending, off-axis scariness, right into the throbbing “Lava”. Rich, black pulsations surrender to the air, its roots disappearing deep into the Earth, mysterious magmatic escape forcing its way to the surface.

It sees a fight, the possibility of hot, engulfing emergence from deep within, and yet “Garden of Forking Paths” seems to countermand it. At first it has a dreamy air, harp pickings setting a magical and hopeful tone, but it quickly darkens as throbbing synths set an oppressive march through hazy, miasmic passages. Direction becomes questionable, avenues and paths blur into labyrinthine cul-de-sacs and errors. It pounds and pounds: look where your deviation has taken you.

No. 4 has a nice self-referential atmosphere, one that queries its own advances; time will tell whether Vantzou’s decision to pass through the doorway, navigate the garden and descend the staircase will be a fruitful one, but the self-awareness is smart and intimate.