Disemballerina – Undertaker (Graceless Recordings, 28 June 2014)
Disemballerina – Poison Gown (Minotauro Records, 10 July 2016)
Moving right along with our theme of not-exactly-metal music, today we’re going to cover a pair of albums by Portlandian trio Disemballerina. This ensemble first came to my attention about two years ago when harp/viola player Myles Donovan had contacted me about their album Undertaker, which had been mixed and mastered by Tad Doyle and released via the Loss-owned Graceless Records. It was described as “something like doomed chamber music,” and had cover art that was taken from a series of images where the harpist had placed found bird carcasses (in this case, a blue heron) into the photocopier at Kinko’s. With a pedigree like that, of course I was instantly intrigued.
Disemballerina, it turns out, had been formed back in 2009 by Donovan and guitarist Ayla Holland. The two have worked with a number of other musicians over the years, but their line-up is currently set with the inclusion of cellist Jennifer Christensen. Last month, the “doomed chamber” group had another album emerge — Poison Gown — through Italian label Minotauro Records, and so today we’ll tackle both of those records.
The music here is perfectly represented both by the accompanying artwork and by the name of the band — presumably a portmanteau of “disembowel” and “ballerina” — as in each case it’s something elegant, graceful, and beautiful, but put within the context of something dark and disturbing.
Undertaker‘s seven tracks (forty-five minutes altogether) and Poison Gown‘s six (nearly half an hour) both begin and end with some sort of sound or vocal effects being incorporated: for respective opening tracks “Sundowning” and “Impaled Matador,” the former includes faint human-like noises in the background that resonate with pain and sorrow, while the latter has occasional background sounds like howls from the depths of hell. As for closing tracks “Siren on the Rocks” and “Styx” (again, respectively), oceanic sounds accompany a very sparse musical arrangement in the first, while the other includes the chirping of crickets amidst a piece that’s otherwise especially mournful and solemn (although the last minute or so does take on more of a firm, resolute tonality).
In between, we get plenty of gloomy, slow strings accompanying the gentle plucking of the harp — the general mood across both albums, and the particular arrangement of the instruments, frequently brings to mind some of the darker romantic-era airs, such as certain bits from the Peer Gynt suite.
Occasionally, though — especially throughout the earlier of these albums — the musicians will make use of detuned notes or bent strings, creating slight tonal conflicts within and between the different parts. And while for the most part the more recent album seems somewhat more melodious and harmonious, still everything seems just a touch distorted most of the time, like an image that’s just slightly (almost unnoticeably) out-of-focus.
All of this works perfectly together to wordlessly express the overarching themes of these compositions, which are filled with internal struggles (Undertaker‘s “Ozma’s Prison,” for example, is inspired by a literary character whose entire childhood was spent bewitched into the form of a boy, until her true identity was revealed later) as well as external (“That is the Head of One who Toyed with My Honor” from Poison Gown has almost a war-dance rhythmic feel to it).
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