Caterina Barbieri, "Spirit Exit"
After a handful of teasing and divergent singles, Caterina Barbieri's first full-length on her own light-years imprint is finally here. To be honest, I had some early apprehensions about how well Spirit Exit would stack up against previous releases, as this is an unusual Barbieri album for a couple of significant reasons. The most obvious one, of course, is that this is the first of the Milan-based synth visionary's albums to feature vocal pieces. Equally significant is how the album was composed and recorded, however, as Barbieri's previous releases gradually took shape from her eternally evolving live performances. Spirit Exit, on the other hand, is "100% studio music, written and recorded amidst Milan's infamous, dramatic extremely strict two-month lockdown...at the very start of the pandemic in early 2020." The drama and darkness of the period unquestionably surface a lot on these pieces, but the unraveling of civilization was but one of Barbieri's major influences at the time, as Spirit Exit was also inspired by "female philosophers, mystics and poets spread across time...united in their strength at cultivating vast internal worlds." Barbieri is no slouch at cultivating vast internal worlds herself, as evidenced by the "psycho-physical effects of pattern-based repetition" explored in her earlier work and the second half of the album features several pieces that feel like instant classics. Some of Barbieri's attempts to expand her vision into more pop and dance-inspired places work a bit less well to my ears, which ultimately gives Spirit Exit a bit of a "transitional album" feel, but those pieces may someday dazzle me after being further honed by live performances or inspired collaborations (she previously managed to floor me once with Fantas and again with Fantas Variations, after all).
In classic “Fantas” fashion, Spirit Exit continues the fine Barbieri tradition of leading off her albums with an absolutely killer opener. In this case, the masterpiece is “At Your Gamut,” which resolves into something resembling beatless deconstructed house music after a brief snarl of sputtering, howling entropy. The heart of the piece is its bittersweet synth melody, however, which leaves psychotropic vapor trails and tendrils of arpeggios and countermelodies in its wake. Aside from being a great song, it is a perfect illustration of why Barbieri is on a plane all her own, as it is a fiendishly complex feast of interlocking melodies, shifting textures, and gleamingly futuristic, neon-lit beauty. Notably, “At Your Gamut” also inspired Barbieri’s first foray into sampling, as “it later gets crushed, accelerated and unrecognizably transformed into the ghostly hook” of yet another stellar piece (“Terminal Clock”). While earlier pieces on the album merely flirt with dance music, “Terminal Clock” is the piece in which Barbieri finally goes all in with absolutely sublime results, as swooning vocal fragments beautifully collide with a lurching kick drum thump, pulsing chords, melodic strings, and some wonderfully gnarled and tortured-sounding textures. To my ears, it is an instant stone-cold classic of outsider techno and an enticing glimpse of where Barbieri may be headed next. Remarkably, however, “Terminal Clock” is sandwiched between two other gems of similarly high caliber: “Life At Altitude” and “The Landscape Listens.”
“Life At Altitude” is something of a throwback to Barbieri’s earlier work, as it is essentially just a single killer arpeggio pattern enlivened with endlessly shifting textures and organically waxing and waning passages of intensity. Needless to say, it is spacey, psychedelic, and futuristic-sounding in all the right ways. “The Landscape Listens” is also quite spacey and hallucinatory, but it takes a very different path to get there, as bleary, hiss-soaked swells of melodies feel like they are straining to break through a bulging and tearing dimensional barrier. Despite that, it is an unexpectedly warm, tender, and meditative piece that culminates in a lovely swooping and swooning final act. For those keeping score at home, that means that four out of Spirit Exit’s eight songs are absolutely goddamn perfect and probably essential listening for anyone actively interested in the current cutting edge (or future) of electronic music. The remaining four pieces are a bit more of an inspired mixed bag, as they each miss the mark for me in one way or another, yet generally still have at least one extremely cool idea or theme at their heart. The best of the lot is the epic “Knot of Spirit (Synth Version),” in which a dreamy melody lazily falls through a backdrop of blurred and flickering stars like a comet before transforming into a more structured arpeggio workout for its second half. The remaining three pieces are all vocal ones whose only crime is that they tend to be a be bit too dramatic for my taste (likely influenced by the “end times” feel of the early months of the pandemic), but I can definitely foresee that side of Barbieri’s work reaching a much wider audience once she figures out how to better to play to her strengths, as her potential seems damn near limitless at this stage.