wears the trousers magazine

lisa gerrard: the black opal (2009)
December 27, 2009, 6:04 pm
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,

Lisa Gerrard
The Black Opal ••

One implication with ambient or “space music” is that it exists primarily to create an aural space around the listener, to set a mood rather than for the sole sake of enjoyment. This can backfire, often creating an aura of inaccessibility or, at worst, can feel a little patronising, but among the limited pantheon of those who have carried the genre off to perfection sits former Dead Can Dance member Lisa Gerrard. Both during and since her time with her longstanding collaboration with Brendan Perry, Gerrard has provided accompaniment to many high-profile cinematic projects, from arthouse to Hollywood, and judging by her formidable trophy cabinet (most notably containing a Golden Globe for her score to Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’) providing music to set a mood is something she excels at. But resting on one’s laurels is not something that lends itself to great creativity and her latest solo offering, The Black Opal, sadly highlights a crushing lack of ingenuity when not provided with a visual companion piece to work from.

Of course, Gerrard’s musical competence is without question and her operatic vocals are hard to fault; each song is carefully built around her knack for beguiling timbre and her chilling use of idioglossia (she often sings in a language of her own invention). The problem is that the whole ensemble offers nothing that Gerrard has not explored before and shows very little deviation from – or evolution of – her trademark formula. Opening track ‘Red Horizon’ sets the tone of the album, very much in the vein of what fans will expect. A morbid brass section intro gradually melds with Gerrard’s unsettling vocals to create an effect that is, as ever, unsettling and quite beautiful, but it’s nothing that Gerrard has not done better before, notably on the infamous ‘Host Of Seraphim’.

The structure and mood continues almost unchanged through the next four tracks; ‘The Messenger’ adds electronic beats and Michael Edwards’ doleful piano to the mix and ‘The Crossing’ explores tribal drumming and Eastern music influence, but it is rarely interesting and the pieces are all but indiscernible from one another. The first song to show any deviation is ‘Redemption’, which begins with warm strings that bray methodically, resurfacing to prominence throughout the song, giving it a greater sense of space and emotion than what has come before. Gerrard introduces her echoic vocals (which here take on a sepulchral quality, somewhat reminiscent of Gregorian chant) gently, and the overall effect is aching and sad. But while the composition is understated and effective, it outstays its welcome by a large margin and fails to carry itself through the full eight and a half minutes.

What is most evident upon reaching the halfway mark is that Gerrard now struggles to write music that does not recall the epic vistas and high drama of films such as ‘Gladiator’; as a result, her compositions feel forced and incomplete without a visual for them to lay atop. Despite its playfully biblical lyrics, darkly sexual tone and aggressive violin, ‘The Serpent & The Dove’ does little to buck this trend and is little more than competent. The album’s most surprising moment comes with an unexpected version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’, made all the more surprising by giving The Black Opal its only real standout. Though it lacks the power of Dylan’s original and the sexual revolt of Hendrix’s famous cover, it is appealingly sultry and gloomy, its ethereal sounds, occasional militant percussion (courtesy of regular collaborator Pieter Bourke) and insistent cello all expertly considered. Even so, when compared with the multitude of superior workings of the song, it is rather underwhelming.

Indeed, with so many uninspired tracks that do so little to distance The Black Opal from Gerrard’s wealth of previous work, the entire experience is hugely disappointing. Gerrard singing in her bizarre style is always going to be affecting, the ambience undoubtedly chilling, but this latest collection is at best frustrating and at worst completely forgettable.

Terry Mulcahy
The Black Opal is available only through www.lisagerrard.com


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