Klara Lewis, "Live in Montreal 2018"
Klara Lewis has been a unique and consistently interesting artist ever since she first surfaced, but 2020's Ingrid felt like a massive breakthrough and just about everything that she has released since has been stellar (live albums included). Unsurprisingly, Live in Montreal 2018 does nothing to derail that streak, but there are a couple of somewhat big surprises with it too. The first one is the date of the performance, as I had no idea that Lewis was on this plane two years before Ingrid came along. That is not to say that Live in Montreal would have necessarily eclipsed 2016's excellent Too had it been the follow up, but the Lewis of 2016 was an artist who seemed categorically disinterested in doing anything the conventional/expected way. And the comparative melodicism of 2018's fitfully great collaboration with Simon Fisher Turner (Care) felt like a one-off experiment in applying her non-musical found sounds to a more traditionally musical vision rather than a change in direction. As it turns out, however, Care was merely a tease of greater things to come and the lucky attendees of this performance got a sneak preview of those greater things long before the rest of us. The second big surprise is that this album is composed of seemingly all new material rather than variations on Lewis's existing work‚Äîit feels aesthetically akin to a proto-Ingrid, but a stage before that piece was distilled to just a single perfect motif. Obviously, that narrowing of focus yielded great results, but this more varied and shapeshifting approach yielded some legitimately great results too, elegantly blurring the lines between drone, noise, spacy synth explorations, and pop plunderphonics.
As with a lot of live albums these days, the only significant difference in sound quality between Live in Montreal and one of Lewis's more formal recordings is that it feels like there is a thin veil between me and the full harmonic richness, clarity, and crunching physicality of the music. Obviously, that is less than ideal, but that loss is presumably offset by a more significant gain like "it was not possible to reproduce the magic and spontaneity of this performance in a studio." In any case, this album consists of a single 47-minute piece "with three distinct discernible sections" and an overarching theme of "permanent collapse" in which "strange sonic elements introduce themselves, rise to the fore, threaten the fundamental discourse only to recede on the brink of destroying the work itself." While I sometimes have a hard time determining which elements constitute "the work" and which ones are the threatening interlopers as the piece unfolds, the trajectory of the opening section is quite easy to grasp: an intense choral sample plays over a subdued, gurgling, and crackling industrial rhythm, becomes erratic, then settles into a looping and haunted-sounding melody just as a visceral assault of white noise erupts. In a rough sense, it resembles a killer noise set tenaciously trying to tear its way through a classical requiem with only moderate success, which is a very appealing aesthetic given the fine balance of beauty and violence that Lewis achieves.
I am not sure if the noise element necessarily wins in the end, but the original choral theme is eventually reduced to a bleary drone augmented by woodland sounds like chattering birds while the noise/industrial elements rhythmically continue onward to steer the piece into a fresh passage of flanging drones over a heaving, crunching sea of roiling white noise. Gradually, however, it starts to feel like me and my chirping avian buddies are now at the seaside (along with some quivering feedback ghosts) as large waves relentlessly crash upon the shore, yet that too proves to be an ephemeral interlude, as Lewis soon starts to segue into her next dazzling set piece. While the next section could reasonably be described as "warm ambient drones," they are vividly enhanced by a shapeshifting host of dissolving and hallucinatory new elements (hiss, submerged backwards melodies, glimpses of Spanish guitar, Whitney Houston belting out (nearly) unrecognizable fragments of "I Will Always Love You," etc.). All of those other elements gradually vanish, however, leaving a gorgeously psychotropic and crystalline drone palace in their wake. For her final trick, Lewis ends the pieces with frayed, shivering synth swells that spectrally wobble over a stark backdrop of crackling textures. It is an appropriately beautiful conclusion to the set, but Lewis's more impressive achievement is how organically fluid and compelling the journey to get there was: this album flows along wonderfully and the bridges between its major events never lull, nor does it ever feel like Lewis artfully stitched together a trio of different pieces into one. There is a definite arc to this album and it is a thoughtful and satisfying one with no missteps or unnecessary detours to be found. While live albums outside the improv/jazz milieu are historically not my favorite thing, this one is a rare and notable exception, easily ranking among the finest releases in Lewis's already impressive discography.
Samples can be found here.