dreams of the future: chrissie caulfield on the worlds of sabrina peña young

December 17, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Sabrina Peña Young – Science Fiction & Horror Movie Soundtrack Collection: Strange Films of Sabrina Peña Young (self-released download)

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Of my list of female:pressure review submissions this is one I have been simultaneously looking forward to the most and dreading the most. Looking forward to because, as I hope I will prove, Sabrina is an extremely talented woman who works very hard at what she does – just an initial quick listen excited me with the quality and inventiveness. Dreading because… there’s an enormous amount of it to look through, and the depth as well as breadth of material is hugely intimidating.

There are operas, piano pieces,‘classical’ music, electronics. Hell, she’s even written a book! Faced with such a talent, ‘overwhelmed’ is the only feeling I could initially manage. However, she helped me out by sending a “tasting menu” in the shape of her A Futurist Music Anthology… album. Weighing in at 31 tracks and lasting over two hours, it’s a good cross-section of her electronic works.

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To make this more manageable I took the tracks that the taster album contained that were also in her latest electronic release, Science Fiction & Horror Movie Soundtrack Collection: Strange Films of Sabrina Peña Young, and that is what I’m going to write about – mostly. It saves me time and that means that you’ll get this review before Christmas and Rob won’t think I’ve been permanently buried under a pile of virtual CDs.

So let me now guide you gently around (some of) the Strange Films of Sabrina Peña Young:

We enter the sound stage on the set for ‘Virelaan’ – a spooky ticking clock the develops into the almost traditional horror motif of the pipe organ. There’s a motif here’s that reminds me of Steve Hackett’s ‘Shadow Of The Hierophant’, but this is no precursor to Post Rock, it soon dissolves and leaves us in languishing in the dungeons. Once we regain consciousness there’s that motif again – but not on the organ any more, it’s some sort of diabolical music box emerging from a dark pond. Mocking, mocking, mocking. I have no idea how we’re going to get out of this.

After that spooky opening, ‘Symphony of Shadows’ feels rather conventional. More what you might expect a movie soundtrack to be, all swooping strings and close-miked piano. With a similar-veined start, ‘Pillar Of The Underground’ is more engaging, it simultaneously reminds me of both Shostakovich (probably due to the snare rhythm) and the theme from Gladiator (probably the singing). This is recognisably ‘film music’ again, but the sweeping string synths are just glorious. Taking something I would normally hate (string synth sounds!) and using them imaginatively to create music that is dramatic, involving and occasionally surprising is exactly how they should be used. Actually the way she does this is very reminiscent of ‘Sleep Together’ by Porcupine Tree. That’s three references I never thought I’d use when writing about the same track!

We’re back onto the horror trail with ‘Us vs Them’, which is all modulated sine waves and vampire voices – this is Buffy The Vampire Slayer territory, you can almost feel yourself descending into the catacombs and then being chased by a cute blond guy with a slightly unconvincing English accent pretending he needs a wheelchair (spoiler alert). There’s a fair amount of these barely distinguishable voices on these tracks and they’re always done very effectively. Most especially at the start of ‘Metamorph’ which takes us more firmly into SF territory: Blade Runner rather than Red Dwarf, though not in a Vangelis sense. A dystopian future where gentle synths try to keep you calm while there is strange disturbing, alien, chattering going on around you. The landscape eventually settles into a watery rhythm, keeping you on your toes: are you sure you’re not being followed?

It stopped!

No!

There it is again!

In some ways this feels a little like Blade Runner as done by Paul Auster.

‘Lullaby 1’ is NOT the track to play before going to sleep, you have been warned. Yes, there’s a gentle, almost soothing piano melody but it’s too distorted and fuzzy to allow you to stay calm, and what’s going on behind it will make your skin crawl and your brain play tricks on you all night. ‘Looking Glass’ is that track you wake up to after the five minutes sleep you got following lullaby. In your half-awake state there’s quite a nice harmony going on, but it takes a little while for the Amenità-style vocals to cohere in your head. Even so, there’s something still not quite right, it fades in and out and you’re never quite sure if you’re fully conscious at all.

When you recover full consciousness you find yourself in ‘World Order #5’ where you’ve been dumped on the bridge of some spaceship escaping from a post-apocalyptic Earth – synthetic voices announcing the populations of countries (spoiler alert again: zero). The computer voices here go on a little bit too long for my attention span. Once those settle down though we end up wandering in deep space in what feels like a rather malfunctioning spacecraft and it gets more interesting again. There are clanks and clicks and you have no idea what’s wrong or whether anyone is going to survive. Is this the end of the human race entirely? From now on, it’s just the robots.

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I’m not sure of the exact relationship of ‘World Order #5’ to an excellent Kraftwerk-style track which is, sadly not on this compilation, called ‘World Order #1’ (on the Origins album). Maybe I should have done my research properly and gone hunting for World Orders 2,3 & 4. Anyway, if you’re making your own collection from Sabrina’s releases I heartily recommend getting this one too.

The scariest piece in this collection has to be the wonderful ‘Dollmare’. The title only partly prepares you for the noises that unfold. This is The Twilight Zone in under three minutes, a small, but self-contained masterpiece of piano bashing and synth washes that will stop you from sleeping for the whole of the rest of the week if you’re not careful. If ‘Lullaby 1’ didn’t finish shred your nerves into nanotubes, this will.

‘Singularity’ is a whole Star Trek episode in miniature. It opens as an almost conventional, if nicely constructed piece of theme music, and gradually becomes something very much more. Going from the journey out, discovery of a possibly inhabited planet, then meeting an alien, trying to escape and the closing theme music again – a novella in seven minutes forty-three seconds! To be honest I’m pretty sure that that isn’t the actual narrative of ‘Singularity’ but I like to make things up as I’m listening and that idea seemed plausible at the time [Editor’s note: it’s the RFM way…]. What it’s really about is the rise of machine intelligence, of course; which is equally scary, possibly.

In fact constructing a whole narrative in a short-ish track seems to be something that Young excels at. Another track that is sadly omitted from this album is ‘Danse Amoebe’ (again, it’s on Origins) which is a ritornello of FM drones and squicking sounds that seem to be telling a story – but one that’s too strange even for my twisted brain to work out. Young is expertly doing this on several other pieces and it’s something that I also attempt quite often, so I have some idea of how hard it is to get right. Building a coherent, pleasing and meaningful narrative using music in under eight minutes is a lot harder than it might sound, especially without making the transitions jarring. The classical ritornello structure is an inspired use for this purpose that I will almost certainly steal. Actually, the ‘Danse’ in the name implies that it might not be telling a story in this case but, dammit, this music is so evocative it’s hard not to read extraneous things into it, as I proved earlier.

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This is just a taste of the pieces on this release, and I think the number of references I’ve had to resort to in this review gives you some idea of the breadth of scope of Young’s music. There are more conventional soundtracks and even some pieces that might be classified as “drone” on here to enjoy. Though even her drones have actual harmonic structure and are not a sine wave left to mingle with others of its own ilk for half an hour.

If I have a criticism of this album, it’s in the track ordering. Granted it’s a compilation of pieces from different places and projects and the variety is huge, but some of the transitions feel a little jarring to me. The structure of the individual pieces is pretty much impossible to fault but the album as a whole is crying out for, dare I say it, a “playlist” of favourite tracks to be built and filtered by the listener.

For those of you who are also fans of SF literature it might be worth investigating her book too; if it’s of the same quality as her music, I’m sure you will not be disappointed.

Oh, there’s also a ‘Virtual Opera’ about it.

Can I lie down now please?

—ooOoo—

Sabrina Peña Young

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