LA-based composer, multi-instrumentalist and performer Julia Holter drew critical attention in 2010 with the release of her mostly ambient, full-length debut Tragedy. It didn't prepare anyone for her new release, Ekstasis, meant to be a companion piece (home recorded roughly in the same period as Tragedy), contrasting vastly from its predecessor, exhibiting a pop sensibility and accessibility.
Holter is a graduate of CalArts, where avant-garde composers/musicians such as Vinny Giola and Wadada Leo Smith are longtime faculty members and "Experimental Sound Practices" is a music department section. She uses spare instrumentation and employs "lo-fi" electronics as she creates a complex structure of interweaving vocals lines. Drawing influences from wide sources, including Asian Pacific pop, Robert Wyatt, Ornette Coleman, Deerhoof and ‘80s Vangelis soundtracks, Holter creates wholly unique aural arrangements, placing her among exemplar experimentalist contemporaries such as Julianna Barwick and Juana Molina.
Holter's aesthetic, in a sense, shadows Phil Spector's "Wall-of-Sound," where individual instruments are indiscernible -- all blending to create a singular symphonic sound. Holter's version of this method is ingenious (and probably based on limited funds); she keeps the instrumentation spare while building the vocals as rhythmic, as well as a melodic, instrument.
Ekstasis brims with a sense of being outside of oneself and of fun play. Its opener, "Marienbad," delivers floating dual vocals (and a dual set of treated and intertwined lyrics) over a synthesized harp and organ riff. As it builds with added percussion, the composition evolves into a march with all of the "parts" falling into place, contributing to an intricate whole.
Holter leans toward melodies that once flooded Asian Pacific pop, especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s, employing them in "Our Sorrows" and "Four Gardens." What sets her music apart from simply emulating this style is a deconstruction: sounds are broken, cut-up and rearranged. Holter does so in a fluid fashion that sounds startlingly as if it was a lost track from the Blade Runner soundtrack. As with many of Holter's compositions, the sound is otherworldly, linking sounds of the past with futuristic ones.
As opposed to Tragedy, which was entirely performed by Holter, Ekstasis includes contributions by a handful of musicians who add organic elements, allowing for an oddly organic feeling to the entire album. Though she employs lyrics, the words are not necessarily used to incite meaning; rather, it's the collective sound that seems more important. As opposed to vocalists such as Björk, tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus or Kate Bush (especially Bush's '82 release, The Dreaming), Holter's vocal power doesn't draw from a theatrical or dramatic base -- it doesn't draw attention to itself. Instead, it sublimates itself into a larger work, evoking surprise and humor, with a distinct combination of intelligence, innovation and craft.