August 21, 2017
Released On April 7, 2015
Released By Software Recording Co.
Much has been written in the last decade or so about the ailing industry that is classical music in the modern world. Musicians’ strikes, failing orchestras, cuts to salaries and benefits, aging audiences, plummeting ticket sales, et cetera have been hanging like a specter over this part of the music industry for a number of years. As someone who has spent a great deal of their life studying classical music, this death knell that has rung for many years has been disheartening, to say the least. I know as well as anyone that the world of classical music must change if it wishes to stay relevant to more than just fussily dressed octogenarians attending yet another performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Dvorak’s 9th, sitting in abject silence, clapping only at the appropriate time (you’re supposed to wait until all the movements are finished!!!). For a long time I have been daydreaming about what the future could hold for classical music, one in which it’s not so divided from the rest of our culture. And Gabrielle Herbst, who releases music as the mononymous GABI, is, in my humble opinion, a composer and musician of immense talent, and someone who represents new possibilities for classical music as we attempt to reconcile our differences with the greater music industry at large.
Sympathy, GABI’s debut album, is described on her website as “a suite of compositions” born out of “an exploration along the edges of song-form,” a description I think is both accurate and important when attempting to talk about her music at length. Think of these words as something of a guiding hand in interpreting these songs, as these nine compositions never come close to anything resembling the typical verse-chorus structure of more traditional popular music. Many of the songs move freely between sections of thematic content, frequently introducing new ideas and motifs as time goes on. That’s not to say there’s a complete lack of overall structure here; in fact, many of the songs are fairly symmetrical, utilizing some kind of ternary form to return to what’s come before. Case in point, album highlight “Da Void” does this magnificently, starting with ambient synth tones and slow, deliberate lines before shifting to warmly strummed electric guitar and then finally to spare vibraphone and strings. It eventually circles back around to the warm guitar and those same opening ambient sounds to finish the song, bookending it’s journey with a strange, even perhaps uneasy sense of finality.
Sympathy never lacks for new ideas and varies greatly in a number of ways, from length to instrumentation to overall feeling, but GABI keeps the general focus of the music on her voice, and for good reason. It’s an instrument of incredible pliability, discipline, and beauty — it can be rhythmic and stuttered one moment, full-bodied and brilliant the next, soft and delicate right after that. “Falling,” in particular, is a wonderful showcase for Herbst’s vocals, beginning with effortless soaring high notes over rhythmic vocal samples until, at the perfect moment, a huge, enveloping bass comes in and you realize the song had been a cappella that whole time. Another one of the highest points on an album chock full of high points is “Fleece,” possibly the most lyrically complex and compositionally dense song here (Herbst goes a long way with the repetition of just a few words and ideas on many of the tracks). It sweeps easily between imagery that is both intimate and pastoral, building and falling to peaks and valleys of both grandiose and quiet beauty. It’s a song that feels so full of light it will leave you breathless. I wish I could talk endlessly about every song on this album, as pretty much all of them have untold layers to unfold but, alas, I do have a word limit.
On GABI’s Facebook page, she lists both the trailblazing art-pop matriarch Kate Bush and the omnivorous, indefinable 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen under her “Artists We Also Like” heading. Indeed, with Sympathy, GABI extends an olive branch to the larger umbrella of popular music while retaining a solid core of art music training and identity, pushing and extending the boundaries of what could be considered classical music today. It’s an album that leaves me excited and happy and hopeful for what the future could be for a genre of music I care about deeply. Brava, GABI, and thank you!
Surrounded by darkness, bathed in light, clothed in white — an imagistic metaphor, perhaps?
It didn’t surprise in the least, to find out post-listen, that Gabrielle Herbst had studied music formally — majoring in composition no less — at Bard College. When the core of Herbst’s own songwriting is built upon layered voices and harmonizing befitting a small choir or ensemble, there’s no doubt familiarity with the textbook rules of arrangement and orchestration have been close by at hand. In its most macro form, Sympathy gives off character reflecting a classical framework (The string performance on this album — see final track, “Hymn,” as an example — is undeniably vulnerable in the mix but confident and flawless in its execution.) with a simultaneously contemporary direction. However, there are similar artists or groups that balance these two opposites whom are entirely different from what GABI — Herbst’s stage name — presents. Grammy winning, contemporary choir Roomful Of Teeth comes to mind as a relevant peer example but, this group’s end results are nothing like Sympathy‘s outcome. A third element seems to factor in between the opposing forces of Herbst’s artistic voice and her training; one that gives the album’s nine tracks a touch of intriguing eccentricity and less neatness (not in reference to performative quality) conjured in academic teaching or performance. Björk seems an apt mention here, as much of her music contains an often indescribable uniqueness that, over time has become her steadfast signature — not easily depicted but instantly identifiable as something in her wheelhouse. GABI’s interest in exposing listeners to less common musical structures and an enthusiasm for incorporating dustings of her eastern musical knowledge alone make both Sympathy, and GABI’s own backstory as an artist, worthwhile explorations. (With its extraneous percussive background sounds and various chiming bells, “Where” feels like a gentle effort to include gamelan-like qualities.) However for those that might not want to work too much while playing through the album, Sympathy‘s vocal purity, tonal precision, and docile melodies offer more than enough of a satisfying experience with no deep research or collegiate knowledge required.
A few weeks back, when I was singing Carla Morrison‘s praises, I talked about the idea of containing music — wanting to remember it, keep it close — as a fan. GABI has me thinking about that same idea, only from an artist’s perspective. Sympathy exhibits a fascinating ability to handle songs loosely — to bend structure so ideas are given the space to grow and travel and transform. Verses and choruses take a back seat to exploration, and I love how weightless the process can seem, like Gabrielle Herbst’s breath is drifting where it may, the past dissipating and the present becoming more and more central, even in spots (“Falling,” for example) where looping imposes rhythmic constraints. It’s all about where the next note is going — where it will take you, where it will take the song. There’s a oneness with aerodynamics, and I picture words and tones floating upward during opener “Koo Koo.” But Sympathy isn’t just vapor; it’s diffuse in a more charged way, as the lyrics of “Love Song” hint at by repeating “electricity.” In fact, the image of lightning keeps coming to the front of my mind, especially when listening to “Mud.” Herbst starts with a moody melody that splits into a three-piece vocal arrangement, with companion lines — one soulful, one ethereal — before the whole thing comes crashing down to Earth via harshly bowed strings. Represented visually, that path might look a little like this. (Incidentally, there are worse ways to spend your Sunday evening than scrolling through pictures of lightning and listening to GABI.)
This mysterious concoction of a record lends itself well to the “love child” theory of criticism, i.e. I could easily say that the music of GABI is like if Hildegard Von Bingen and Brian Eno had a love child in Shostakovich’s living room and you would immediately begin assembling an aural hologram of what it sounds like. If you conjured up ethereal, haunting vocals, ambient textures, unusual song forms, and perhaps a bit of acerbic melancholy, you would be triangulating your way towards Sympathy. Of course, the best thing to do would be to listen to it, and part of me wonders why I hadn’t heard of it before, and laments that the overflow of music is such that it’s take me two years to find out about Gabrielle Herbst, who has collaborated and studied with Zeena Parkins, a harpist and composer whose work I know fairly well. Then there’s the 8.0 review in Pitchfork, just below the “Best New Music” designation that might have propelled it into my newsfeed, even though I’m not a slavish Pitchforkian. There was also a very cool — in the sense of “neat” and also “remote” — video for “Koo Koo,” where five GABIs hang out in a sparely elegant room and ignore each other with calculated froideur. Instead of getting frustrated that this captivatingly beautiful record eluded me for two years, perhaps I just need to accept that the first audience of Off Your Radar is my fellow writers and hope that when more than a dozen smart, creative musical thinkers start blabbing about a record, maybe a little surge of new listeners will inject extra life into music that should be heard more widely. Why not let the first one be you?
Deftly mirroring the gorgeous vocal layering GABI uses so well.
Last week’s selection, T.K. Ramamoorthy’s Fabulous Notes Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz, caused me to hear GABI’s Sympathy in a completely different way. I initially listened to it a few weeks ago, and my thoughts were simply about how lovely it was, not unlike the work of Julia Holter or Grouper, who we lso covered. But the similarities to T.K. Ramamoorthy struck me on later listens. Like carnatic music, GABI uses her voice to invoke an emotional response. Her singing, over sparse electronic or piano melodies, is rhythmic and forward in the recording, and at times I felt like I was going into a trance. The lyrics are not always audible, but I could feel her intent. Lest you think GABI is all spiritual & new age-y, listen to “Fleece,” which is about as close to a “hit” as can be found on Sympathy, even though it’s seven and a half minutes long, and is about staring at a lover while they’re sleeping (creepy!). It starts out like her other songs — slowly and beautifully, and just when you expect the repetitive voice to kick in, she turns the tables and surprises us with a chorus and more robust instrumentation — in addition to a piano and guitar, there are also some strings and a trombone. I particularly love the Autre Ne Vaut “club mix” (I would not dance to it, but I am old and don’t understand why people like EDM), which is available here. There’s this special moment on “Hymn,” before the sprightly violin comes in, that reminds me the most of carnatic music. GABI sings “hallelujah” so many times that it almost loses all meaning. I think that is such a powerful accomplishment for a singer and composer — she has broken down a word so much that it just becomes syllables, a wave that the listener can just ride on and drift away.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
When was the last time you fell in love with a siren? For those of you who are not well versed in Greek mythology, the sirens were these incredibly sexy yet dangerous creatures that would lure in any nearby sailors and send them swiftly to a watery grave with their enchanting voices. Now I’m not saying GABI is a siren and that we’re all going to die, but what I am saying is that I will not be listening to this album on my next sea voyage. If you’re looking to lose yourself in what’s left of the summer, I’d recommend Sympathy for an extraordinary sensory experience. You might also want to get yourself a good pair of headphones and possibly someone to watch over you just in case I’m right about the whole “GABI-is-a-siren” thing. Sexy mythological demons aside, this album is beautifully constructed to accentuate GABI’s effortlessly beautiful and haunting vocal performance. Dreamy, ethereal, and overall enchanting, Sympathy is the pinnacle of the experimental-pop subgenres. My personal favorite track is “Mud,” which showcases her ability of capturing the essence of an object, in this case the viscosity of mud and creating the appropriate musical accompaniment for how we perceive the object. She then transforms our previous notions with her aptly crafted instrumentals to initiate an emotional response from the listener by building tension and subtly changing the entire feel of the song in a harmonious way. Are you confused? You’ll know what I’m getting at when you listen to the track, but to sum it up, Sympathy is a technically proficient and emotionally diverse album that you don’t want to miss. So don’t let it pass you by.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
Sympathy is quite a feat of vocal ability. To carry an album where the instruments are clearly secondary is not an easy task. To make your voice the featured instrument requires talent, vision, and ingenuity. Oh, and balls. I think the greatest example is “Mud.” The record opens with a vocal performance that’s kind of like giving a guitarist an acoustic, with nothing else, and telling him to rock out the best way he can. How dope are you on your own? As if GABI’s solo shot wasn’t enough, then the strings drop. In an instant we go from The Notebook to The Shining, and it’s awesome! I marveled at the self-sampled backing harmonies employed throughout the album on records like “Koo Koo,” “Falling,” and “Where” It’s an exhibition of the artists’ imagination right in front of your eyes (and ears). This is truly how she hears songs in her head, and she decided to record it. I can see this album being played at hot yoga studios, massage clinics, or heaven. “Love Song” is what angels puts baby angels to bed with. Likewise, “Hymn” is what angels play at funerals. Yes, I know that’s impossible. That’s how impossibly dark the record is.
It’s futile to try to capture the spirit of GABI’s remarkable voice with just one picture, but we’re damned if this striking, elegant photo doesn’t come close.
I don’t even know where to begin with GABI’s Sympathy. The record is laced in vocal acrobatics and an affinity for well-composed pop melody. Who can resist the sheer level of skill and grace it takes to pull off a sound like this? To do it well, and make it listenable (a way that isn’t cheesy or over-done) is an impressive feat. What’s most impressive about this release is GABI’s ability to create a mood and an atmosphere that is difficult to escape without sinking into her abyss. The layers of arrangements and archaic micro-harmonies within this piece are entrancing — it’s not pop by the generally vague standard, but rather, artful sound in the key of “pop.” GABI is not only hypnotic in her concepts, but magically calm in her delivery, which is so refreshing to hear. I can’t help but feel comfort in knowing that pop can be this mesmerizing (I forget this occasionally, in my emo / punk rock hole I’ve dug myself into over the years). Since when did bland, water-down lyrics become the norm in pop? Who started that madness? At least GABI is here to repair that trend — her grasp of language and meaning over the simplistic nature of words is pretty astounding. She does so much with so little, and it paralyzes me. Her music is not immediately accessible. One could even argue that the vocal stunts and intense instrumentals are intimidating, from the start. But this is only the first layer. Once surrounded, you will find the message, the meaning, and the intricately designed soundscapes that envelope this piece.
Asked to define myself at a strategic planning session for work, I went through a guided series of questions. Leadership style, personality type, coffee preference… as I sat and listened to my colleagues, each thought sanitized in a vat of professionalism before being carefully displayed, all I could think about was how fruitless it was to try and know someone in three days. Even without the work façade, how is it more important to know I like black coffee than it is to know that I will stand on the porch in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and feel at home? If language is the conduit from my experience to yours, then I was once again reminded of how miserably it can fail. Enter Sympathy, the pulsating, raw album from GABI. Listening to some artists’ catalogs is tantamount to reading their diaries, but listening to Sympathy feels more like listening to her head and heart. With blips and pauses, completely fractured melodies and sparsely laid components, GABI pulls us into a moment, a lifetime, of her love, her pain. There is no consistency here except beauty, sharp-edged at times, breathtaking at others. If, at times, her soaring voice pulls across your heart, it is no less serene. When listening, I was fully aware this was her existence, but it still brought to mind old hurts and loves, rendered me silent so I could just float inside the visceral space of this album. If language fails to get across the me to the you, then Sympathy comes closer than so many words could.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
An impressive instrumental record if I’ve ever heard one. Yes, I know what “instrumental” means and that Sympathy doesn’t necessarily “fit.” Yes, I know that these songs have “lyrics” that you can actually “hear” to follow a “message.” No, I don’t “know” how to use “quotes.” While I believe GABI crafted the lyrics of Sympathy as carefully as she did the lush harmonies and inspiring arrangements, they mostly wash over your ears as the music itself dominates what you hear, not the words. It doesn’t help that she relies on so many repeated phrases and mantras throughout her songs, breaking down words into their core elements with tenacious duplication and gorgeous vocal loops. That’s not to say that words are unimportant to GABI though (again, it’s clear GABI well-constructed the lyrics here — listen to “Where”), but it feels as though she’s conditioning us to hear notes, phrases, and refrains on the same level we do words, instead of on two different planes as is the norm. To me, it makes the voice stand-out as not just a flexible instrument (like all great voices), but an instrument that’s fully entrenched within an orchestra. Instead of the voice being relegated to the sides or right in front, it’s mixing in with every section here. It bounces like a horn section (“Koo Koo”), floats like a wind section (“Da Void”), punches like a percussive ensemble (“Falling”), and tip-toes like a string section (“Fleece”). All of these sections are represented with actual instruments here too, providing depth to the sound, but also contrast with the vocal shape-shifting on display. And here I am talking about horn, string, and wind instruments on a record full of breath-taking vocal moments. Sure sounds like an impressive instrumental record to me.
Life by The Cardigans
Chosen By Guest Contributor Nicole Yun (Eternal Summers)