This is the second solo album from NYC-based violist/composer/musicologist Annie Garlid and it borrows its name from the Greek word for "place." Notably, Garlid moved back to the US in 2018 after spending a decade in Europe (playing viola in a German opera orchestra, among other things) and that return to her home country unsurprisingly stirred up some deep and unfamiliar thoughts and feelings. Those ruminations directly inspired Topos conceptually, as the album is a meditation on the "simultaneous familiarity and foreignness" of Garlid's surroundings and her entanglement "with a place that was both in her memory and in front of her eyes." Regardless of its inspirations, Topos is a very different (and stronger) album than its predecessor United, as Garlid's medieval and baroque influences are newly downplayed in favor of a more sensuous, hallucinatory, and vocal-centric vision. While that transformation makes a lot of sense given Garlid's work with artists like Caterina Barbieri, Holly Herndon, Emptyset, and ASMR artist Claire Tolan, her assimilation of those disparate influences is impressively seamless and inventive, as Topos feels like the blossoming of a compelling and distinctive new vision.
The five pieces that compose Topos cover an unexpectedly expansive stylistic territory, as each individual piece takes a very different path than the other four. For example, the opening "Riverbeds" is not a far cry from Laura Cannell's sublime art-folk, as string drones sensuously rub up against one another beneath hushed, spoken vocals. It is a fine piece, but the two that follow are the ones where Garlid's vision truly catches fire.
On "March 6th" she conjures up a psychotropic folk dance by combining a viscerally stomping and clapping rhythm with a serpentine pizzicato string motif, Siren-esque choral stabs, and vocals that resemble an eerily harmonized jump rope game. On the following "Ocelot," Garlid's hushed voice ruminates on her favorite childhood animal ("you were the jewel of the catsssss") over a gorgeously sensuous groove enhanced with dreamy vocal harmonies. It is sexy, simmering, and psychedelic in all the right ways, but I was most struck by the seemingly effortless virtuosity of Garlid's vocal phrasing, as she artfully veers between trance-like spoken word, warmly harmonized choral melodies, creepily unsettling effects, pregnant pauses, and hissing sibilance.
The album's final piece, "Forest Floor," is yet another gem, as Garlid enlists a handful of collaborators (her sister Thea, flautist Rebecca Lane, saxophonist Eve Essex) to craft a wonderfully shapeshifting ambient fantasia of whispers, field recordings, hazy snaking melodies, and subtly trippy chorused guitar fragments. Given its more vaporous and elusive form, it does not quite match the impact of the album's stellar first half, but it makes for quite a lovely way to end an album, as the closing minutes evoke a ghostly folk ensemble slowly dissolving in a thunderstorm. The album's remaining piece ("Robert") is not quite up to the same standards, acting more as an interlude than a fully formed statement, but that does not otherwise dilute Topos' impressive run of highlights or dampen my view that this album is a huge creative leap forward for UCC Harlo. That said, "March 6th" and "Ocelot" are on a separate and revelatory plane all their own, as they easily rank among my favorite new pieces in recent memory and resemble no other artist that I am aware of.