In contemporary art, the city serves as a coulisse for a portrait of a cold, anonymous, almost inhuman place, full of hopeless human entities that just pretend their life while living in machine-like cycles of work and insomnia. Whether in grim, industrial, information-age chaos or futuristic, supernatural order, the city acts as synonym for oppression of the masses and ceaseless pandemonium. Music captures the severity of cities in a handful of stark genres, predominantly with a dark, electric atmosphere existing in a volatile equilibrium of collapsing maelstrom versus strict order. Elizabeth Walling’s debut album as Gazelle Twin definitely possesses these glum vibrations, but the overall feeling derived from the first few listens is a slight hesitance as to whether the concept of her city, which lies in an unspecified time, is a fully dystopian portrait or one of a utopia on its way into apocalypse. Perhaps this was her very intention – to retain the uncertainty and vagueness right to the final impression. Inspired by the painter Max Ernst, The Entire City is a surrealist mirage of dark and idyllic, soothing and oppressive.
When describing Walling’s artistic sensibility, it’s impossible not to mention Karin Dreijer Andersson (The Knife, Fever Ray) and Janine Rostron (Planningtorock), with whom she shares many aesthetic features. Like both these artists, masks and costumes are an integral part of Walling’s performance, with two advantages: not only can she keep characteristics not fitting with the concept out of sight, but her ingenious outfits allow Walling to assume different roles and shift the attention from her true self to the music itself. Vocal manipulation is another crucial piece of the Gazelle Twin puzzle, and again like Andersson and Rostron, the prevalent electronic processing does not prevent the album from dealing in an expansive range of emotions. And when Walling turns off her numerous machines and leaves her voice bare, as documented in ‘Changelings’, the effect is one of surprising beauty. ‘Organic’ and ‘natural’ are not the most appropriate adjectives for Walling’s art, but these naked tracks sound more human and straightforward.
Taken as a whole, The Entire City is a monolithic piece with a clear and closed structure, every song thoughtfully highlighting the metamorphoses of Walling’s wide-ranging voice according to the particular needs of each composition. Right from the beginning, this album inhabits and is emblematic of a world of its own, a vision of an uneasily gloomy metropolis. The cinematic intro sets the prevailing unsettling mood through the resolute and marching sound of winds coupled with virulent electronic percussion, a mood then augmented by a breathtaking trilogy of the album’s strongest tracks. Together, they present a strange omen: Walling plays the role of femme fatale turned monster and fills the songs with a peculiar mixture of frightening uncertainty and well-covered sexuality. From the slow wail of ‘Concrete Mother’ to the shadowy, upbeat ‘I Am Shell I Am Bone’, she lets her vocoder-manipulated character creation pretend at being god, conqueror and ruler of the entire city.
As the album progresses, the paranoia and darkness spreads ever wider, cast in claustrophobia and narcotised decay, but it’s not without some falling away of engagement. The second half employs much the same tricks as the first – cryptic lyrics, stark synths and treated vocals – but to slightly lesser effect. Overall, though, it’s fair to say that Walling strikes an impressive balance between economic and maximal approaches, offsetting the more generic tracks with her talent for drama. Wise enough to pay heed to dynamics and mood alteration, Walling imbues her songs with focal points of interest (the operatic prelude of ‘Far From Home’, the enigmatic surrealism of ‘View Of A Mountain’, the bracing melodrama of ‘Men Like Gods’) without sacrificing continuity. And while it could be argued that she’s merely playing with shades of the same colour, Walling’s smart arrangements ensure that The Entire City is a surprisingly fluid and complex debut. Maybe too conceptual or hermetically closed, but definitely worth delving deeper into and exploring its numerous beauties.
[Anti-Ghost Moon Ray; July 11, 2011]