As much as I complain about the ridiculous intricacies and vague specificities of musical taxonomy – and believe me, I often do, even if only in my head – I must admit that the plethora of genres makes for a convenient shorthand for roughly describing what something sounds like. Yet Aspaklaria, the second album from the London based Jarmila Xymena Gorna, deftly defies glib classification and description. I am not the first critic to struggle with defining Gorna’s sound, which tramps confidently across the musical landscape, with her first record, 2004’s Hashgachah, delighting and dumbfounding critics in equal measure.
Meaning ‘clear lens’ in Aramaic, calling the album Aspaklaria provides a wonderful dose of irony considering Gorna’s stylistic opacity, with the album twirling, diving, and leaping from moments of adult-contemporary, jazz, electronica, experimental, art-pop and more, with confidence and conviction. Given that Gorna wrote, composed, arranged, engineered, and produced the record herself, the musical mélange of Aspaklaria could easily have turned into a self-indulgent mess yet, while not for everyone, it is a remarkably coherent record that demands very little charity from the listener.
The eponymous Aspaklaria opens the album with mellifluous vocals from Gorna, and a strong keyboard motif, which is drone-y in an easy-listening sort of way, that anchors the track while Gorna demonstrates her vocal range, which easily extends from warm and earthy through to sharp and airy. Thanks to clever use of repetition with variation, a strong bridge/break containing a solid groove, and lyrics concerned with unfulfilled desires and promises – which also set up the album’s loose narrative arc – Aspaklaria passes its nearly five-and-a-half-minutes surprisingly quickly.
Only You intertwines middle-eastern and western scales and rhythms fluently, and a meditative vibe permeates the song, aided in no small part by wordless singing and adroit vocal layering and harmonisation. Forgiveness maintains elements of world-music influence while adding a strong IDM flavour to the proceedings, and Faith utilises the piano rhythmically, while also pushing the vocals back in the mix, but still feels overly long despite having an overall pleasing sound. A swinging chorus counters Black Dog’s lyrical darkness but doesn’t prevent the song from overstaying its welcome, and the fact that the song ends with a fadeout seems to indicate that Gorna struggled to see a natural way to conclude the song which should have wrapped by the time the key-change kicks in.
This darker mood continues on My Self, but this time is it is the instrumentation that provides the track’s heft while the lyrics convey personal growth and acceptance. Such emotional counterpointing is remarkably effective and affecting, and My Self provides the lift that justifies the light and ethereal elements of closing number, A Dance. By slowly pushing its melancholy piano line to the back of the mix, A Dance provides a satisfying yet gentle release to the end the album on.
While Gorna’s strong vision and obvious talent are clearly responsible for Aspaklaria’s success as an album, the performances from David Farren (Bad Manners), the production and programming assistance by Larry Holcombe, and the mixing by Matt Lawrence (Mumford & Sons) were also instrumental in Aspaklaria’s execution. Given all that is going on on Aspaklaria, it is amazing that the album’s weak parts are merely forgettable interludes rather that flaming wreaks, but the album’s highs certainly make listening to Aspaklaria worthwhile for anyone willing to being surprised.