I was attracted to this album out of curiosity on what kind of classical-pop crossovers Deutsche Grammophon is putting out these days -- apart from their string of Sting records. I was familiar with some of Tori Amos's music from the 1990s. Although I can't say I have followed her closely, I was intrigued by the idea of what she might do with "a modern song cycle" that explicitly calls on classical traditions.
I came away pretty impressed. No one should expect a classical album here. The songs are written with a popular sensibility -- this is not "Die Winterreise". There are two real links to the classical world. First is the instrumentation. The conservatory-trained Amos plays her Bösendorfer piano beautifully, and is accompanied on most tracks by a string and wind octet that features Andreas Ottensamer, the principle clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic. Other accompaniment is provided by Apollon Musagète string quartet. The musicianship is pretty serious.
The second link to classical music is that all the songs are variations on, or inspired by, classical pieces. Listening to this album and the original sources of inspiration back to back shows all the originals are very recognizable, but all with a new take or twist that successfully builds on the source to make it distinctively Tori Amos. The inspirations for the tracks on the album are as follows:
1. Shattering Sea (Alkan: Song of the Madwoman on the Sea-Shore, Prelude op. 31 no. 8)
2. SnowBlind (Granados: Añoranza - from 6 Pieces on Spanish Folksongs)
3. Battle of Trees (Satie: Gnossienne no. 1)
4. Fearlessness (Granados: Orientale from 12 Spanish Dances)
5. Cactus Practice (Chopin: Nocturne op. 9 no. 1)
6. Star Whisperer (Schubert: Andantino from Piano Sonata in A major D 959)
7. Job's Coffin (Inspired by the next song, Nautical Twilight)
8. Nautical Twilight (Mendelssohn: Venetian Boat Song from Songs Without Words op. 30)
9. Your Ghost (Schumann: Theme and Variations in E flat major WoO 24 from Ghost Variations)
10. Edge of the Moon (Bach: Siciliano from Flute Sonata BWV 1031)
11. The Chase (Mussorgsky: The Old Castle from Pictures at an Exhibition)
12. Night of Hunters (Scarlatti: Sonata in F minor, K.466 and the Gregorian Chant "Salva Regina")
13. Seven Sisters (Bach: Prelude in C minor)
14. Carry (Debussy: The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, from Preludes I)
Classical music purists will not likely be pleased with this album, but I was. The closest I could think of to this sound and atmosphere was Im Wunderschonen Monat Mai, which is a modernization of Schubert and Schumann -- mainly "Dichterliebe" and "Winterreise" -- for chamber ensemble featuring sultry vocals by German actress Barbara Sukowa. Although the vocals are very different, I did find a kinship in the feel and atmospherics of the chamber ensemble.
The themes in the lyrics are complex, and I'm still digesting them, but they are well done on that score as well. This is a fine pop-classical crossover album (given the appearance on the DG label, I think that's a fair categorization). There should be more music like this.
on September 20, 2011
2011 has been a troubling year for America and the West, but a good year for rock n' roll and popular music, especially for older women artists.
Marianne Faithfull released the critically-acclaimed 'Horses and High Heels,' her 18th studio album, and traveled throughout the United States and Europe supporting it; Stevie Nicks released her seventh solo album, 'In Your Dreams,' an album which, with 2001's 'Trouble in Shangri-La,' creatively revived her failing career against all odds after her 80s and 90s downturn; Blondie released their low-key and rather unadventurous ninth album, 'Panic of Girls,' and Kate Bush released an album of reworked songs, 'Director's Cut,' and will be releasing '50 Words For Snow,' her first recording of new material in six years, later this year.
In the midst of this activity comes 'Night of Hunters,' Tori Amos's 12th album of new material since 1992's 'Little Earthquakes.' Commissioned by the prestigious German record label Deutsche Grammophon and described as "a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years," the album features eleven tracks based on the compositions of Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky, and others.
About the time of Amos's excellent second album, 'Under the Pink' (1994), her fans seemed to diverge into two camps: those who fairly embraced almost anything Amos released, and those who preferred what might be referred to as the 'woman at her piano' compositions such as 'Winter,' 'Baker, Baker,' 'Yes, Anastasia,' 'Cooling,' 'Lust,' 'Josephine,' and, later, 'Indian Summer,' 'Apollo's Frock,' 'Garlands,' and 'Snow Angel.'
The good news for both groups, especially the latter, is that 'Night of Hunters' features no percussion, has been recorded with string quartet Apollon Musagète and arranger John Philip Shenale, and very much revolves around Amos at her piano, which is quite suitable, since Amos began her music instruction at a very young age at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland.
Does 'Night of Hunters' sound anything like Amos's previous work? Are there any Amos 'classics' among the eleven tracks?
The answer to both questions is 'Yes': the most outstanding track may be the majestic and passionate 'Star Whisperer' (based on Schubert's Piano Sonata in A major D 959), which is passionate in the tradition of the live version of 'Sugar' (from 'To Venus & Back,' 1999) and the title track from 2002's 'Scarlet's Walk.' 'Night of Hunters' (Scarlatti's Sonata in F minor K. 466 and Gregorian Chant 'Salva Regina') is almost equally passionate, and also somewhat frightening, as only Amos can be: at points, the track sounds as if the Furies are descending.
'Fearlessness' has something of the drive of 'Carbon' and 'Tombigbee,' the catchy but serious-minded 'Job's Coffin' features an excellent lead vocal by Amos's young daughter Natashya Hawley, 'Nautical Twilight' features something of the playfulness of 'The Wrong Band,' 'Wednesday,' and 'Velvet Revolution,' while the closing track, 'Carry' (framed around a Debussy piece) is very much in the melancholy-but-hopeful tradition of past Amos closing tracks such as 'A Thousand Oceans,' 'Gold Dust,' 'Toast,' and 'Our New Year.'
If the album stumbles, it does so at the beginning: The opening line of first track 'Shattering Sea' (Alkan's Song of the Madwoman on the Sea-Shore, Prelude op. 31 no. 8), "That is not my blood on the bedroom floor," is delivered melodramatically rather than dramatically, and, musically speaking, the composition simply isn't compelling.
'Battle of Trees,' the third track, which is based on Erik Satie's very short, mischievous, and elfin Gnossienne no. 1, is slowed to a crawl and extended to more than eight minutes. The result is flat, tepid, and considerably stalls the forward motion of the whole.
Whether 'Night of Hunters' is indeed "the best thing Amos has released in over a decade," as some of the early reviews have claimed, will be up to each listener to decide. It may be that 'Night of Hunters' is simply a little purer than 'The Beekeeper' (2005), 'American Doll Posse' (2007), and the generally underrated 'Abnormally Attracted to Sin' (2009).
Most fans and listeners who enjoyed Amos's holiday/solstice album, 'Midwinter's Graces' (2009), will readily be able to embrace and recommend the beautiful, highly accomplished 'Night of Hunters.'
Lastly: is Tori Amos one of the preeminent musical artists of her era? Undoubtedly.
on September 20, 2011
Night of Hunters by Tori Amos
If you are looking for Little Earthquakes, part 10, you can stop reading now.
But if you are even remotely interested to hear Tori breathe life into the old, dead bones of such masters as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Schubert or Johann Sebastian Bach, hear her add a beating heart, blood, flesh, feelings, human fear/love and consciousness into those bones, then buy this record and just sit back and listen to it.. I was lucky enough to hear NPR streaming it for a week before the release and I had to sit down in a comfortable position with headphones connected to my computer for 72 minutes (so I was held captive by 3 feet of cord) and just LISTEN. It is at once disturbing (especially the first track), playful and beyond beautiful. I cried as she touched my soul during the first listen. Edge of the Moon might be the most accessible track and the first track, Shattering Sea is probably the most difficult one to listen to...but it only lasts for 5 minutes, so you will be OK. I promise, and I actually love this song.
Since this is a 72 minute "song cycle" it is meant to be listened to in it's entirety in one listen. It's not background music...but if you HAVE to download one song just to get a taste, maybe try Job's Coffin if you like pop, Seven Sisters if you like classical and Edge of the Moon if you want eclectic. For those of you who want "classic Tori" download the title track. But I really recommend that you buy the whole thing and just listen to it with an open mind.
I also adore the way she used 2 young voices to voice a changeling fox/goose by her daughter Natashya Hawley and her niece Kelsey Dobbins as Fire Muse. Their voices add so much to the record and Tori's own vocals are a bit more stark and less blended/overdubbed than we are used to, but that is part of the story. For the people who can't "figure out what she is talking about" why not stop being in your head so much and just sit back and go on her journey?
Let's all please remember that the most prestigious classical label in the whole world, Deutsche Grammophon, approached Ms. Amos to do this record. She didn't ask for it. She didn't dream it up one day. They challenged her and she took up this mantel to challenge us, her public. I don't know if this record is going to gain Tori any new admirers (it should) and it might turn a few of her fans away.... But just try to pry this CD out of my cold, dead hands, because I will be listening to this one for years and years to come. And I am not the only one. Yeah...she might not win a bunch of new listeners, but she will deeply reward the fans over and over again who dig this record.
NoH is a MASTERPIECE that is a tiny bit off-putting at the first song until you get into the story and hear some of the pieces that she worked with (you can stream them all over the web). It is her best, most ambitious effort since 2002 and I, for one, can't WAIT until Tori is on the West Coast so I can witness this creation live, in person, for myself. Just try to get over the fact that Tori is never going to make Little Earthquakes part 10 and wouldn't you be disappointed if she did?
on October 25, 2011
I just can't get interested in this work. It's not Tori's fault. She continues to be technically brilliant, just doing her thing, trying to grow as an artist, exploring female archetypes in different ways.... I've just lost interest in the approaches she has chosen of late. I honestly haven't connected to anything since "Scarlet's Walk", which I loved as much as I loved the six albums before it. Unlike many purists, I love Tori equally with the band and without. I appreciate the different aspects that each style brings out in her. But I was surprised when "The Beekeeper" inspired absolutely nothing in me (although "The Power of Orange Knickers" was fun). I was a bit shocked when it got worse from there. I must admit to actively disliking every track on "American Doll Posse" and the Sin album, which I think of as the Halloween records. I can't blame Tori for playing dress-up--she's always flirted with this as a performance element--but it's taken over so much of her work now. The Doll record and especially the tour were such a construct, it's as if Tori weren't there at all. She was in drag the whole time. I nearly walked out of the D.C. show from sheer boredom. The good news is that "Night of Hunters" is a vast improvement over those two albums, which is a relief.
Admittedly, I'm one of those cliche "Little Earthquakes Saved My Life" people, someone who used her early work as a catalyst to shout down every last demon once and for all. She really did save my life. But I also know that kind of songwriting is just unsustainable really. I can't imagine writing that close to the nerve all the time, and the fact that she managed to do it for as long as she did is remarkable. The insane level of audience need from her during this period was palpable. Who would want the pressure of propping up so much damage over and over? Still, that being said....I miss "the girls". I miss the intimate quality of that early work. I miss knowing that I'm going to hit play and be completely altered forever in some dazzling, incalculable way. I miss the vague suspicion that she has crawled into our heads somehow and given a voice to things we can't articulate ourselves.
Now it feels like we're just amicable old friends who've drifted apart.
Mostly, I hope that the more abstract and intellectual/stylized work from Tori the last few years means that she's happy, means that Nancy is all sorted, and means that Tori's home and family life are good. I will say Tash is charming on the new album. Her voice has a raspy quality similar to Norah Jones and I bet this kid will be a hell of a jazz or blues singer one day. The record is also worth a listen for the classical arrangements and resurgence of the Boesy's voice as the Head Piano In Charge. The best improvement over Tori's recent work is that--while she's still playing dress-up a bit on this album--at least she seems to have gotten a grip on the northern accent which crept into her voice in recent years, so she sounds more like herself again. Is it my old friend? No. But on this album at least it feels like she's waving.
on September 28, 2011
I can totally agree with what many reviewers have already said about this album, both positive and negative. I've been a die-hard Tori fan since 1992, and own every album, boot-leg, video, and book she has released. I've seen her several times live. She is incredibly talented and her music touches me like no other artists' does, making me cry at times, think at others, and simply uplifting my spirit when it's needed. I have followed her along her journey and watched how her music changed with each album. Many fans did not like The Beekeeper, American Doll Posse and Abnormally Attracted to Sin, but I was able to find many gems in each of them. So I was looking forward very eagerly for the release of Night of Hunters. I was a little nervous..."modern 21st century song cycle"? Huh? Don't get me wrong, I grew up taking ballet and playing the flute so I am well acquainted with classical music, but it's never been something I would choose to listen to.
I was so excited when I had the CD in my hands and put it in the CD player and "Shattering Sea" came on and I thought "ok, this is different, but I kind of like it." Then I listened to the entire rest of the album and felt such a pit in my stomach. I didn't like it. AT ALL. I couldn't believe this was Tori and here I was NOT liking it. I already have tickets in hand to see her in Philly in December and I was not even sure I could sit through music like this at a live show. I didn't like Tash singing. I just didn't feel it. But I was not going to give up. Over the past week, I have listened to "N.O.H." straight through several times. Certain songs started to grow on me. I read through the lyrics several times to get a better understanding of the story she was trying to tell. I listened to the instruments and tried to appreciate their flourishes and nuances.
Then something magical happened...I started to really like this album. It's different, but different is good and it's still Tori. "Shattering Sea" is still one of my favorites...it's raw yet refined and I can in fact relate to it because the music and lyrics sum up episodes I have experienced in a former relationship. "Battle of Trees" is long, yes, but the words and instrumentation go perfectly together. "Edge of the Moon" is another stand-out. The interlude towards the end of the song made me absolutely smile because it reminded me of the old Tori, but so much better because of how much she has evolved. "Carry" brings tears to my eyes...it is beautiful and full of meaning for me, personally. And yes, believe it or not, the more I listened, the more Tash's voice on the album made sense, and blended in with the entire theme. My least favorite song on the album is "Job's Coffin" but I do think Tash's voice sounds good and I'm sure the song will grow on me in time. I don't give it five stars because there are a few parts that do seem to lag or be drawn out a little too long.
I urge Tori fans who initially hate this album to give it some time to really sink in. It's one of those things that gets inside of you and you can't stop thinking about. Right now I have "Star Whisperer" stuck in my head and I find myself singing these songs throughout the day even though I didn't think that could possibly happen upon first listen. Now I'm psyched to see her live in December...I think this music performed live will be extremely powerful.
on September 21, 2011
This album is an amazing, gorgeous piece of work. I don't think Tori's singing or playing have ever sounded stronger; the arrangements are dazzling, without being overpowering; and her variations on the originals are truly inspired. I'm a bit perplexed by some of the negative reviews, but given the type of serious album this is I guess I shouldn't be. This isn't background music or disposable, instant-gratification pop: it requires some concentration and repeated listening. The less refined, ADHD-afflicted listeners out there apparently aren't hearing 'hooks', but these are some of Tori's most melodic, beautiful creations... ever. Your Ghost, Nautical Twilight, Job's Coffin, Carry, SnowBlind, Shattering Sea... all brilliant. I challenge any of her peers to pull off something this complex and emotionally textured, yet accessible and approachable.
It's really gratifying to see Tori taking her career in this direction: she continues to be fearless and follows her gut -- regardless of the commercial consequences. How many performers/artists have that kind of commitment anymore? Not many, and I for one applaud it. I'll be listening to this for many years to come: it has brought to fruition what Midwinter Graces only hinted at. Spectacular. Bravo Tori. Looking forward to seeing you perform this masterpiece in December.
on October 3, 2011
This album came out at a perfect time for me; I have been really enjoying exploring classical music recently. I was merely looking to add two or three tracks to my Tori Amos collection when I learned she had a new release. Tori singing to classical music....it sounded perfect.
And you know what? It quite nearly was. I would lean closer to 4.5 stars truly. The singing of her daughter unfortunately did detract for me. I liked the idea in theory, but it adversely affected three of the four songs she was involved in. (In the Chase, I did enjoy the duality between the two). Lyrics were very solid, and I'm looking to explore them more deeply upon further listening. I was very pleased with the balance of Tori's singing versus the instrumental music in the background. This was a very nice balance.
The classical music selected: awesome. I enjoyed every single track. Enough that I am going to hunt down each classical song. They were simply excellent, especially the first eight or nine songs.
All and all, I am simply thrilled by this release. A wonderful collaboration between Deutsche Grammaphone and Tori Amos. GREAT work, and thank you to both!
on September 29, 2011
Wow! Tori Amos "Night Of Hunters" is a complex and captivating collection of ethereal and haunting classical popera. The vivid lyrics will require several listens to fully fathom. Tori's exquisite voice and expressive piano playing accompanied by beautiful orchestration will entice your imagination. Contemporaries Kate Bush and Owen Pallett came to mind while enjoying this eclectic masterpiece.
on September 26, 2011
I finally received my copy of Night of Hunters in the mail. I usually like to listen my way through one of her albums a few times before jumping to any quick judgements. And, after reading some pretentious reviews on the web, and listening to praises and criticisms I both agree and disagree with, I figured I'd write my own review here.
Instead of downloading the album, I bought the actual CD/DVD combo. I'm usually old-fashioned that way with Tori's albums for two reasons. First, I like to have the beautiful little booklet to flip through so I can learn the lyrics straight from the source. Some of the lyric postings on the web are inaccurate. Second, I like to have the bonus material. The DVD includes a mini documentary that explains what this album is about. With any of Tori's high concept albums, I usually need to have the concept explained to me in order to "get it." I also find that I appreciate the album more when I understand the angle from which Tori approaches the work. Watching the bonus material of The Beekeeper made that album come alive for me, and I've found the same is true of Night of Hunters.
Night of Hunters is described as a 21st century song cycle. I had to look up what a "song cycle" was, and learned that it's a work designed to be played in sequence as a single narrative entity. This song cycle tells the story of a married couple who travel to Ireland, from the New World to the Old. The album opens with a violent shattering of their relationship as night sets in, and the man has left. The rest of the album reflects the woman's psychological state as the night progresses, from dusk to dawn.
Since the narrative takes place in Ireland, mystical elements come into play. Nature has a voice, and the woman is helped by Anabelle, a shape-shifting elemental spirit (played by Tori's daughter Natashya Hawley). Anabelle represents all dualities--water and fire, male and female, hunter and hunted. Tori's niece Kelsey Dobyns also appears as the Fire Muse in the title track, and has a stunning voice.
The man in the story is also present in a way--reflected in background instrumentals, quotations, and memories relived by the woman during the course of the night (as in the song "Your Ghost").
The song "Carry" concludes the woman's story as dawn approaches, and Tori leaves it up to the listener to draw their own conclusion as to what happens to the couple.
This album is very different from any of Tori's previous works. It's largely a classical work, and many Tori fans may have difficulty relating to it for that reason alone. On the surface, many of the tracks seem similar, and the album may seem a bit repetitive and monotonous at first blush. But as you listen to it again, the underlying complexities start to appear. Such is the nature of classical music. Tori herself even admitted in the documentary that, when beginning this work, she realized that she "knew a lot more about shoes than she did about classical music." And the realm of classical music covers over 400 years, so it's a very complex subject.
I usually either listen to lyrical music or classical music individually. The blend of both in this album took some getting used to for me. Night of Hunters has some truly beautiful instrumentals, and I found myself straining to listen to their elements under Tori's vocals, since at times her voice seems to compete with them rather than compliment them. I started wishing for a track that was purely instrumental. Luckily, "Seven Sisters" delivered that. Yet other tracks like "Carry" and "Fearlessness" blend Tori's vocals seamlessly with the instrumental elements into a beautiful harmonious whole.
Some people criticize Tori's choice to include her daughter in her work. And I have to agree that on some tracks, her daughter seems overused. While Natashya did superb lead vocals in "Job's Coffin" (you can't even tell it's a child singing), her voice tends to come across as overly childish in other places and is a bit distracting. At least, I found it distracting. Sorry, Tash.
Overall, I like the album, but it's not my favorite. I listen to this one much differently than Tori's other albums. Since it's a song cycle, I find myself listening to it in sequence as relaxing background music. I don't see myself belting out the lyrics as I drive down a country road, but then I have other Tori albums for that.
But, most of all, I do miss hearing Tori's personal voice. It's only natural for an artist to want to diverge from the norm and create their own narrative vision, but I miss the "nonfiction" Tori. I miss her raw emotional honesty. I miss her spilling her guts in her songs. I miss having something down-to-earth that I can relate to on a personal level. That's what made me fall in love with her as a songwriter in the first place. I find myself wishing for more of that. Personally, I can take the high concept art or leave it.
on September 21, 2011
Stark, intricately orchestrated, and elegant, Night of the Hunter manages to recall grand, centuries-old melodies, while still seeming ahead of its time. The songs, which are heavily-laden with organic, classically-inspired, piano and string instrumentation, work individually but develop a strong, cohesive meaning when heard in sequence.
The narrative structure of the album finds Tori alone after the unraveling of a relationship, as she tries to find power within herself and searches for clues to understand what happened. She meets Anabelle, a shapeshifting creature who warns her that "every couple has their version of what they call the truth." Tori reflects about the course of the relationship, and Anabelle advises her about the "power of old" and that "she alone is her own." By the conclusion of Nautical Twilight, Tori has decided she must "activate the force" of which she is made. Tori "has weapons that could destroy," but Anabelle warns her, "They would have won," and the Fire Muse sings to her, "find love instead of their blood by your thorn," which inspires Tori to carry the memory of her love as part of herself.
The musical discourse between Tori and these other creatures, who exist to guide and help her, explore themes of love, loss, betrayal, cruelty, power, and healing. While Tori has not abandoned her penchant for the bizarre and obscure, the lyrics are more accessible than usual.
Musically, the album is as finely-crafted, and as intoxicatingly beautiful, as it is ambitious. The songs are slow, somber, and dramatic, with rich orchestrations and melodies. Tori's dynamic performance on piano, her melancholy, slightly strained vocals, unique narrative vision and songwriting ability will require multiple listens to penetrate, but the depth of her brilliance and talent cannot be overestimated.