You’re eyes are not deceiving you – NYC based string quartet /band ETHEL have indeed released a new album. Heavy, their first major release since 2006’s Light (apart from a couple composer-centric albums), is a tribute to New York City and also the last album to feature recently departed member Mary Rowell.
ETHEL bridges the gap between releases with Don Byron’s “Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye” (of which #3 was on Light). Inspired less by the actual music of Marvin Gaye and more on the man’s tumultuous life, ETHEL lead right out of the gate with a fearless white knuckled tutti before embarking on a stunning display of techniques – harmonics, glissandos, col legno, if you can name it, it most likely makes an appearance of #1 if not one of the subsequent movements. And yet what’s truly impressive is while having this multitude of what could easily turn into blatant displays of instrumental prowess – ETHEL keep it about the music. And though inspired by Marvin Gaye, it’s hard not to see how Byron’s work fits into ETHEL homage to the city – soulful, endlessly busy but not oppressively so – any movement could be the soundtrack to the city at night (with #3 emphasizing the hint of danger that lurks around ).
Julia Wolfe’s “Early That Summer” is a mammoth of a piece that can best be described as series of stacked moments continuously attempting to up the ante. There’s no rest, no break, instead it’s eleven straight minutes of nail-biting end-of-your-seat pyrotechnics. Each moment from its’ gun-shot like intro goes bigger than you thought possible with nary a thought given to the threat of everything toppling over. When the piece comes to a stop with a series of thick, clustered chords, you can hardly believe it.
Raz Menisai’s “La Citadelle” is fair and above the most groove-centric piece on the album, taking the place of Light’s “Chai” building upon a series of earth-trembling deep ostinatos as the piece plods on minimalistically altering its grooves with a Middle Eastern air. There’s slides and glissandos reminiscent of sirens that manage to ground the fantastical sounding piece into a sort of briefly accepted reality before launching once again on its rhythmic melismatic voyage of grooves.
ETHEL’s decision to close out the album with frequent collaborator Marcelo Zarvos’ “Rounds” gives the album a feeling of splendid closure – the piece is vibrantly melodic with skyward reaching moments. Heavy’s theme of busy-ness returns here but without any of the pseudo-claustrophobic feel, instead offering an added dynamic to Zarvos’ colorful sprawl. If Byron’s “Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye” portrayed a city at night, Zarvos’ “Rounds” provides its parallel as a work of boundless freedom with smile-inducing brightness; a work of endearing calm despite its variety of rapidly moving parts.
Heavy is an album that certainly lives up to its name. Full of intense moments of clamor and balls-to-the-wall frenetic energy, ETHEL also balances it with bold musical statements, truly unexpected twists and turns, and a pristine clarity in ideas. Each piece manages to establish itself not only as an album highlight but as a distinctive part of ETHEL musical tapestry – their homage takes many forms, mostly in an almost breakneck bustle with a moment of relief offered almost exclusively in the form of short interlude-esque “Wed” by David Lang. But at no point is the pacing overwhelming highlighting one of most notable aspects of the city the foursome so clearly love: its relentless hustle. Heavy is an album that achieves absolute balance with just enough going on to keep you on your toes while simultaneously keeping your total and undivided attention. Proving that with ETHEL, the wait is almost definitely worth it.