Monday, July 26, 2010

Emilie Autumn's Victorian Asylum

In general, I find goth music formulaic and more about fashion that music. However, in my teens, I was hooked on Siouxsie and the Banshees Hyaena. I also loved Everyday is Halloween and Bela Lugosi's Dead, and I also flirted with Depeche Mode, Front 242, and some of the more industrial stuff during college.

One of the pleasures in listening to music is getting these subgenres under your belt, revisiting them from time to time, finding an artist making amazing music, and knowing you're one of the few people in on the secret.  Emilie Autumn is such a discovery.

I discovered Emilie Autumn a couple years ago in this way, and listening to her releases and even hearing some of her interviews has been a constant pleasure. A classically trained violinist, Autumn can play with intensity and great beauty.  She can also shred her instrument like it's an electric guitar with a banshee's soul trapped inside. 

The first album of hers I listened to (Enchant) is not what you would call mainstream, but it cleverly flirts with mainstream sounds. Fact is, Autumn uses traditional melody and pop structures the same way she uses any other influence she pulls from; if it works it comes in, if not she shuns it. The result is a widely varied album including a full range of material from beautiful, aching ballads ('Ever'), experiments grafting classical musical sensibilities to drum machines to create subversive pop ('Juliet'), gothy atmospherics ('Across The Sky'), and jagged odes to self-empowerment ('Chambermaid').

The music is crisply performed and recorded, and her voice can be crystalline in its fragility and purity and then switch to gothic moans and phrasing that suggest a nervous disorder. It's a lot of influences to control, and she pulls it off virtually throughout the entire album.  I enjoyed this one so much, and then I saw she had a new album out Opheliac.  Just the creativity of the title intrigued me immensely. As it turns out, she's working off a motif around an 'Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls' which, as best as I can summarize it, is a theme about the way women's mental states are often disastrously confused by men and women themselves with their repressed desires for self-fulfillment. It's an awesome idea, especially given her interest in literary lyrics and classical arrangements. Plus it certainly opens the door for her outrageous fashion sense, stage shows, and promo photos to come into the mix.

Opheliac (the pic here is the deluxe edition) is nothing like Enchant.  The sound is much more challenging, and the flirtation with pop is pretty much over (and she sounds pissed off about the break-up!). Her singing is really harsh on a lot of the tunes and more theatrical (sometimes self-consciously so, such as 'The Art of Suicide' and 'Thank God I'm Pretty'), but it's an amazing evolution from the prior album. I found myself alternately loving the new direction (the stunning title track, 'Dead Is The New Alive') and other times wishing for more of the old style (she does have some tracks that build off her work on Enchant, such as 'Swallow' and the dizzyingly beautiful 'Shalott'). I actually think the impact of these tracks is heightened by their inclusion with the more brutal sounds of this album. It broadens the emotional range and variety of the album.

Autumn is full of surprises.  She cut a maxi-single with covers of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun'.  I can see why she picked the tunes, but I was much more intrigued by her Laced/Unlaced release. The Laced part (which of course refers to corsets and all they imply, but might also refer to drugs used to keep a 'wayward Victorian girl' more controlled) has her playing classical violin music, as well as classically inspired compositions of her own. The Unlaced material is Autumn playing her violin like she's Paganini on an electric guitar. Have to admit I bought the album more for the Laced material, but I'll definitely be stretching my ears with the Unlaced stuff too!

Anyway, I think she's a massively talented and creative artist.  Her albums each have a very different character, yet the concerns and ideas that interest her are consistently dealt with throughout. Seems like she's based in Chicago, which makes it weird that initially I only saw her albums available as imports!  What a sad comment on the American music business that you have to go to Europe to get homegrown talent! 

My fantasy is she does a Halloween concert in Chicago, and I can go dressed as a Victorian gentleman (Pince-nez, cane, and all!). Here's the link to her website:

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