Melanie De Biasio Sees the Light in Blackened CitiesJun 6th, 2016 | By Thom Lieb | Category: Reviews, What's Moving Me
I often laugh when I rip a new CD to my music server and see what genre the recording gets assigned to. A death metal album is Pop? A choral album is Male Vocal? There are more than 100 different genres across my collection, but to be honest I pay no attention to them beyond the basics: rock, pop, jazz, classical, world, ambient, electronic. Partly, that’s because I never find myself thinking, “I’d love to hear [x subgenre] right now.” And more importantly, I find the most interesting music slides across traditional genre boundaries, throwing rock conventions up against jazz techniques, and so on. That’s one of the things that made David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, so interesting. It was an amalgam of various genres stitched carefully together by an artist who loved a wide range of music and routinely borrowed from one style/genre or another.
My latest discovery is Belgian Melanie De Biasio, nominally a jazz musician. But I find that label way too limiting. Not surprisingly, De Biasio immersed herself in a wide range of sounds growing up. According to Wikipedia, she started off playing concert flute, joined a rock band at 15, switched over to jazz, then undertook three years of singing studies at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.
De Biasio has been playing music for 30 years and recording for a decade. Her current release — my introduction to her — is the album Blackened Cities. But it turns out I should have heard her awhile back. Her debut 2006 release, A Stomach Is Burning, was well-reviewed, and her 2014 follow-up No Deal served as a breakthrough. Jazz/blues/torch: Whatever you want to call it, the album is great. Its seven songs prominently feature De Biasio’s sultry vocals, which bear at least a little resemblance to Billie Holiday’s. The Guardian placed the album in good company, not of jazz artists, but among some of the most interesting rock/alternative artists, current and past: “[Its] atmosphere lurks in the same place as This Mortal Coil’s Lynchian glow, Portishead’s sinister authority and Mark Hollis of Talk Talk’s smoky self-titled solo album.” Among those who thought that No Deal was a big deal was DJ Gilles Peterson, who arranged No Deal Remixed, more of an alternate take (much like the reissue of The Associates’ The Affectionate Punch) than just a minor revision. Like the original, it’s well worth hearing.
Rather than build on the success of No Deal, De Biasio takes a completely different direction on Blackened Cities. The album is more of an EP than an album, containing just one 24-minute track. But within that 24 minutes, De Biasio takes the listener on a wondrous voyage. The track is more or less live, with minimal post-production. According to her label, Play It Again Sam, it was “inspired by the post-industrial landscape of her home-town Charleroi. It finds unexpected hope rediscovered in cities with similar pasts like Manchester, Detroit and Bilbao.”
The track begins quietly, with electric piano, double bass and what sounds like brushed cymbals but is more likely an analogue synth. De Biasio’s pure, crystalline voice enters, then shortly exit, as things cook into a tight jam. De Biasio’s flute takes a bow, she comes back in with more vocals (built around minimal lyrics that are repeated almost trance-like. The track in turns navigates from chillout to hot jazz, and finally to a bluesy ending. But breaking it down like this seems a bit unfair, as it moves as one coherent piece, drawing the listener along on its changing journey. There are echos of Susanne Abbuehl’s ECM work, which is more delicate and fragile, as well as Jane Siberry’s jazzier works.
The only disappointment about this release is that its 24 minutes leaves the listener begging for more. But in these days of over-padded CDs, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
- Artist name: Melanie De Biasio
- Title: Blackened Cities
- Year of release: 2016
- Year of first hearing by writer: 2016
- Label of original release: Play It Again Sam
- Format listened to: Digital download (Bandcamp)