By: Josh Cuevas
The Classical | website | facebook | bandcamp |
Released on December 1, 2014 via Bandcamp
For being basically just a singer, a drummer, and a sampler, San Francisco’s The Classical manage to keep things complicated. Take their name: The Classical. You can read a lot into it—tragedy, comedy, historical erudition, elaborate compositions, cheeky self-canonization—and for the most part you wouldn’t be wrong. On Diptych, the band’s unique and uniquely rich second album, it’s all there. But for all the cultured sophistication of its various namesakes, the Classical have a sound that still veers mostly into the not-so-traditional waters of art rock and pop experimentalism. Think Third-era Portishead, crossed with the recent output of Scott Walker, crossed with the most oneiric of David Lynch’s films. The Classical, in other words, wear their latter-day classicism with a wink and a smirk.
If all that sounds weird, well, it kind of is. The 46-minute Diptych is by turns theatrical, intimate, timely, and unprecedented. It’s also expansive, which says a lot about the strange cohesiveness of the act’s sole two members, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Juliet E. Gordon and percussionist Britt Ciampa. (The mix, handled by Sleater Kinney and Om engineer Jay Pellicci, helps as well). Generally, songs hinge on Gordon’s vocal performances and take structural cues from Ciampa’s drumming. Piano, guitar, bass, and brass all make unsettling appearances via mangled samples. All said, the duo exercises a lot of creative liberties within the formal constraints of its sparse personnel, exploring both avant-garde chamber epics (‘The Blue Room’) and early post-punk minimalism (‘Driveby’).
Diptych wouldn’t work without the two musical personalities that drive it. Gordon, who brings a background in drama to The Classical, where she acts as the main songwriter, has a knack for versatile delivery. Throughout Diptych’s nine tracks, her role shifts from guide, to siren, to oracle. Plaintive and prophetic, her vocals lend a familiar human air to the otherwise alien soundscapes. And Ciampa, who moonlights as a jazz drummer, plays with a contagious verve that’s part technical skill, part free-flowing rhythm. Much like Greg Saunier is to Deerhoof, and John Stanier to Battles, Ciampa is The Classical’s propulsive core.
As an album, Diptych is varied enough in material and structure that it unfolds like a tapestry. Each track has its own intricate and nuanced shades. While the collection never bores, there are a few clear highlights: ‘Byzantine Tango’, the deconstructed love song that has a cyclical construction and eerie trans-humanist lyrics; ‘Younger Days’, the mournful closer that resembles a 21st-century ‘Ozymandias’. And then there’s ‘Sicily: Catacombs’, the album’s rare foray into guitar-driven balladry, with it’s lyrical focus on the catacombs’ “desolated” flower salesman (“No one wants fresh flowers for the less-than-recent dead”). It’s a sublime convergence of the historical distance of the ancient past and the emotional distances of the present.
According to a December interview, the vocal melody that anchors ‘Catacombs’ came to Gordon unannounced during an academic trip to Sicily. That story, apocryphal or nor, points to what is probably the single most defining quality of the Classical’s music: it is impressively organic. Everything here sounds found, like the expression of some previously unexpressed muse. The arrangements are meticulous, but not overworked; the lyrics are strange, but not overfussed; and the instrumentation is unconventional, but not overthought. It all coalesces into a slow burning, satisfying listen. Let’s hope there’s more to come from the voices behind Diptych’s resonant halls.