Their Invisible Hands by Clara Engel

Release date: April 15, 2022
Label: Self-Released

When I was young my grandfather used to say that his favourite musician was Hank Williams. When pressed on why this was, his response was often that “he can make his guitar talk”. It was an answer that I struggled to understand as a child. Why would he want to make his guitar talk? Sing? Yes – I could see why that would be of use. Making it roar even seemed to make some sort of sense, but talking? Who would want to hear a guitar having a natter? I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

The philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch clearly knew a thing or two more about this subject than my 6 year old self. In his headily influential work Music and the Ineffable, Jankélévitch suggested that, for musicians, playing is the most accurate form of communication:

“The composer is like a singer who does not know how to speak and can only sing, or a pianist who is asked to discuss something and who sits at the piano without saying a word: because – she knows it, and each listener understands it straightaway – this is the way she will explain herself most subtly, or best respond to our questioning.”

The musicians non-verbal response avoids the intellectual trappings of written language and ekes out a rebuttal perfectly represented by improvised performance. There’s a long history of non-verbal approaches to music. Be they wailing preachers claiming spiritual possession, scat singers, the satanic shrieks of Diamanda Galas, or Emma Ruth Rundle’s upcoming album of unsettling works of glossolalia. But what of instrumentation that appears to communicate in sentences. Not just the simplistic language of sadness in A♭, roused joy in C, or pumping euphoria at 130bpm. But with each released note cutting like a sharpened word. Each bar, a resonating lyrical sentence. What then?

All of this is to say that, on Their Invisible Hands, Toronto-based musician Clara Engel has formed a symbiotic relationship with their talharpa (bowed lyre) that extends well beyond formal expectations and poetically communicates something deeply profound.

For the past 18 years Clara has been recording and performing dark and affecting alternative folk. They also create visual art and write poetry. In their own words they are “not writing the same song over and over so much as writing one long continuous song that will end when I die”. For Their Invisible Hands this song has moved into a world that is more aligned with the soundscapes of the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus than, say, Chelsea Wolfe. The sounds are atmospheric, sonorous, and haunting. At times, like on the gambolling ‘Murmurations’, the notes mimic bird flight. A canvas of melodica and cigar box guitar mapping the flight of starlings amidst the fragile-seeming spill of Clara’s voice. A misleading frailty that belies its true power.

Then, with ‘High Alien Priest, there is the psychedelic road trip of an unearthly being on its last legs. The track comprised of a studied blend of fingerpicked guitar and subtle sonic swells playing out beneath an absorbing narrative of vulnerability. Elsewhere, on this record, the lyrics take on a more folkloric curve. ‘Golden Egg’ wears its sun worship on its effervescent sleeve whilst ‘I Drink the Rain’ is forged of serpents, flaming tongues, skeletal trees and a blindness that wends its way through the heart of the track. This is a surrealism akin to that of Leonora Carrington or Remedios Vara.

On the opener ‘O Human Child’, airy disembodied voices create a ghostly atmosphere that Engel builds upon with poetic proclamations whipped straight from the pages of WB Yeats. “For the world’s more full of weeping that you can understand.” They are no stranger to literary acquisitions for their music – previous pieces have also made use of work by the likes of William Blake and Janaka Stucky. But, for all of the intriguing literary and artistic references, it is the non-verbal approach of Their Invisible Hands that is of greatest interest.

Clara Engel’s mastery of the talharpa does far more than talk. So much more than respond to questions. It sings, emotes, delivers a sound that is often otherworldly (‘Devils are Snoring’) and moody (‘Cryptid Bop’) but it is on second track – ‘Dead Tree March’ – that it really bursts into life. Swishing and swooping with staccato-bowed strings. The throaty and expressive slurs sound like a deep form of communication, some hidden ancient language, has been stirred. There’s a sense of revelation. An almost sultry lilt to the foreign tongue as it tells tales formed from tones that shift from knowledgeable to pensive and enquiring and all reinforced by elbow gesticulations. Written language cannot do justice to what this conveys. More so on this piece than on any other track, hell, more so here than on most other recorded pieces of music, when this plays, I feel unequivocally spoken to. In a language that I cannot speak yet, on a gut… no… primordial level, I can understand perfectly.

It’s this unexpected moment that knocks you out of your comfort zone and cuts to the core. Hearing something new, something surprising, something fresh that resonates in a deep and meaningful way. It’s enough to cause you to sit at a piano in silence. Maybe it was this that my Grandfather was referring to when he spoke of Hank Williams and his singing guitar.

That I’ll never know but what I do know is that their hands may be invisible but their emotional reach is tangible.

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