Ela Orleans - Upper Hell
We've been singing the praises of this Glasgow based Polish composer / pop experimentalist for quite some time now. And since our last review Ela Orleans' star has quite clearly been in the ascendance. Her last solo album Tumult In Clouds was awarded the inaugural Dead Albatross Music prize in 2013 and quite rightly so as it is a stunning body of work, recently reissued on her own Parental Guidance label in a limited run. In the intervening years she scored an opera commissioned by the Polish Foundation - Witryna; performed a live score to filmmaker Maja Borg's We The Others at Tate Britain. She delved into acid beats for Warp Records; recorded an experimental outing, De Fléchettes, with fellow Glasgow based noisenik Skittter; and gained kudos in Mojo from Thurston Moore who witnessed one of her shows and duly purchased all her available back catalog that night. She now follows all that with her sixth solo album, Upper Hell which will bring her dark pop experimentation to a much wider audience.
Upper Hell was borne from a chance meeting with big time producer Howie B, best known supplying beats to Björk, U2 and Tricky, who signed Ela to his HB Recordings imprint. With Howie B at the controls the scuttling rhythms which underpin Ela's works have become crisper, her lo-fi sound given a polished sheen. The overall effect is sleeker, sparser and more spacious without diluting the atmosphere or impact of her dark, crepuscular cinematic sound.
Earlier albums such as Mars Is Heaven and Tumult In Clouds looked upwards to the skies but this time her gaze is cast downwards, dwelling on Dante's Inferno to inform the depression and despondency reflecting a difficult period in her own personal life. Upper Hell enters to the clipped electronic beats and sweeping synth sheets of 'Dark Floor'. It's archetypal Ela Orleans capturing a sense of despair in the chorus of "no tears, no pain" delivered in her enchanting morose voice. You can understand why she's often given the pop chanteuse epithet here, and on the lead track, 'The Sky And The Ghost'; a beguiling slice of pop noir, illustrating her achingly beautiful harmonics and effortlessly cool captivating tones over dance rhythms and downbeat electro. Heartbreak has never sounded so inviting. Like 'Light At Dawn', 'Planet Mars', 'The Sky And The Ghost' is another of those song based gems sprinkled amidst the experimental soundscapes of her solo albums.
Upper Hell features a number of tracks which display Ela Orleans' cinematic technique, which she characterises as "movies for ears". From peeling melodic bells, springs the alluring downscape of 'River Acheron' where Ela recites Dante's Cantos in a dreamy child-like fashion, amidst glinting synths and brooding keyboard notes. The queasy psychedelic drones and piano notes of 'Secret Hands' hint at dark cinematic soundtracks but the "haunted dancehall" appellation that describes Ela Orleans' music is best represented on Upper Hell by 'Upon The Abysses', which merges techno bleeps with heavy soundtrack motifs and distant echoing harmonics, amply illustrating the otherworldliness of Ela's music.
Upper Hell lacks the layers of samples and age-old recordings - due to copyright and licensing laws - found on her earlier recordings but literary influences continue to abound. Ray Bradbury, Arthur Rimbaud, Ted Hughes, Emily Dickinson, WB Yeats and countless others have provided source material for Ela's lyrical excursions but it is to the poetic work of the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, to which Ela returns to on Upper Hell. There's a definite dark side and sense of magick found within the works of Ela Orleans; visuals for the Upper Hell show cribbed footage from Benjamin Christensen's silent film Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages alongside portraits and segments of childhood memories, while Crowley's poem 'A Jealous Lover' signalled the start of Tumult In Clouds. This time, in ice-cold tones Ela recites his poem 'Dionysus' for 'We Are One' a baleful, sorrow laden lament filled with melancholic folk-drones, strings and drum rolls.
Ela Orleans music continually straddles genres but there are some surprising moments on Upper Hell ; the hesitant stuttered synths of 'City Of Dis' lurch into some wayward and unlikely industrial techno, while the closer, 'Through Me', features Katrina and Stephen of Glaswegian indie stalwarts The Pastels, who have been long time champions of Ela's music. Bringing together the gorgeous harmonies that lit up Slow Summits, the last album from The Pastels, with Ela's distant tones over chiming synths and flickering beats it's a beautiful coda to an astounding release. Channelling Dante, in unison their voices entwine on the final lines, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here", as they pass through the Gates of Hell, but for the listener Upper Hell is another slice of heaven from this visionary musician.
Upper Hell represents the most cohesive realisation of the music of Ela Orleans, and with Howie B, Ela has been able to explore her love of dance rhythms without diminishing what makes her music so invigorating and enchanting. Upper Hell is a special release and is, as you would expect from these parts, highly recommended.
Ela Orleans - The Sky and the Ghost