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Prolific French multi-instrumentalist Delphine Dora debuts on Recital with an album that neatly draws us into her vast sonic universe, linking phantasmagorical poems, heartfelt solo piano improvisations, early music and delicate, fin de siècle experiments that drift gracefully between eras. Utterly brilliant music, for anyone into Sarah Davachi, Annelies Monseré, Félicia Atkinson, Virginia Astley, Akira Rabelais, or indeed Andrew Chalk - who produces and mixes the album.
A quick poke around Dora's Discogs page and you'll be introduced to a sprawling catalog that stretches back to the mid-'00s, touching on wyrd folk, sacred music, chanson, poetry readings, tape music and deeply idiosyncratic avant rustlings. Her art blossomed and bloomed in recent years after she moved from the city to a small village in the French countyrside, choosing seclusion from the distractions of urban life to focus completely on creativity in all its forms. And this period has led to some of the most vulnerable, open-minded and subtly diaristic expressions we've heard from anywhere in the world - including heady collaborations with Sophie Cooper, Susanna Wallumrød, Jackie McDowell and the ambitious recital supergroup Autumn Fair. 'As Above, So Below' attempts to quietly précis her story thus far, advancing her precarious aesthetic while drawing new listeners into her characteristic gothic shimmer of ancient ear-ghosts, baroque dreams and ASMR poetics.
This time around Dora has production and instrumentation assistance from legendary British outsider Andrew Chalk (Mirror, Elodie etc), who helps bring out the French polymath's most atmospheric qualities, leveraging decaying drones and weirded orchestral fragments to rub against her distinctive piano playing and vocal performances. Pastorally cybernetic drones are brightened with whisper-quiet field recordings on opening track 'Intimo interior', providing an outstretched, horizontal platform for Dora's emotive, wordless trembles. The dissonance she flirts with is critical, linking the music not just to pre-equal temperament folk forms, but also to musical expression outside of academic perfection - the kind of joyful phrasing that comes from deep inside the heart, from emotion directly into sound. 'Mirage du temps' sounds as if it's fallen from the same universe as Virginia Astley's beloved celebration of the British summer "From Gardens Where We Feel Secure", but where that 1983 album set up a parish picnic during a technological avalanche, Dora's music is an escape from the chaos of modernity that doesn't simply dig its heels into the dirt.
Beneath the dulled piano phrases, gravelly footsteps and household yelps, alluringly fractal synth groans grow jerkily like crystals, glinting in the distance. Dora isn't pretending to make music that's out of time, but out of place - like Andrei Tarkovsky's anxious swan-song "The Sacrifice", it's art that provokes feelings about the nature of escape itself. While rural life can be alluring, the outside world is always a pertinent threat, no matter how far away you think you've secluded yourself. On 'Cantique spirituel', she recites a poem from German author Novalis written not long before his death, as he wallowed in the loss of his secret fiancée and edged closer towards spirituality. Another way to represent a clash of cultural forces, it helps us trace Dora's own relationship with sacred music; Novalis used spirituality to make sense of modernism in the face of the industrial revolution, inadvertently pre-empting Romanticism, and Dora approaches it in the digital age not to chastise us but to reveal our own partially forgotten folk truths.
Occasionally Dora's muzzy processes - usually obscured by her bold playing - mirror the haunted atmospheres of Akira Rabelais' most crushing compositions. On 'L'écho des limbes', her notes are swept into psychedelic, deteriorating clouds that aren't quite echoes and aren't quite drones, sounding like the memory of Satie rather than a replication of his precise furniture music. While on 'Où descend le ciel' she offsets her post-baroque performance with electronic warbles so faint they might be coming from another room entirely, suggesting another world just within grasp. In fact she saves her most straightforward composition for last, bringing French fin de séicle prettiness together with Grouper-like vocal echoes on 'Contrée du dedans' and delivering a final crushing blow to the soul. We're reeling.