It’s incredibly difficult as a music fan, much less a critic, to not judge a book by its cover, so to speak. The good news, though, with St. Petersburg, Russia’s iamthemorning is that you can always judge the contents of their metaphorical book by their covers. Every album’s artwork – even going all the way back to their pre-Kscope debut ~ – has always been gorgeous and thought-provoking, and the symbiosis has only become stronger over time, as we find ourselves currently treated to iamthemorning‘s fourth full studio album in the form of The Bell.
This album’s artwork, once again created by frequent band collaborator Constantine Nagishkin, deftly depicts the overall theme of the album. Where in the past, they have famously tackled issues regarding mental health, as in 2016’s critically- and commercially-successful Lighthouse, this time iamthemorning vocalist, songwriter, and often societal looking glass Marjana Semkina has dug deep into her fascinations with Victorian-era England, premature burials, and “dead Victorian girls” to bring us a macabre and beautiful zeitgeist musical presentation that serves to look at more than one time in history. While bleak, The Bell also manages to entangle its listener in a root system of hypnotic and transcendent soundscapes, and seduce us with enchanting melodies, and ultimately, give us occasional glimmers of hope. And so it is with the titular bell presented on the front album cover. We are shown a calm grave scene with a “safety coffin” rigged in case of emergency; if the entombed body turns out to be laid to rest when the owner of said body is still among the living, then ring bell and be rescued… and most likely a little pissed off. In the press release for The Bell, Semkina tells us, “no matter how low you are or desperate you think your situation is, you can still call for help, but more than that you have to call for help if you need it.” And while that does offer a silver lining to a dark cloud, one can also further extrapolate that the cry for help is only beneficial if anyone is around to hear, or – worse yet – anyone cares. Diehard fans (no pun intended) of iamthemorning who purchase the album in physical form are in for a further artistic treat upon opening their CD case or vinyl gate-fold, but we’ll leave that for the listener to discover on their own.
Musically, the album further chisels out who iamthemorning is as a band, as with each release, we get to know them better and better. From the early days where we had intermissions between songs, and equal turns haunting and beautiful transitions between longer pieces, to now with The Bell where classical song cycles (an invention of Franz Schubert in the early 1800s, who also treated us to Lieder with such exciting and evocative lyrics as “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind / es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind” / “Who rides so late through night and wind / it is the father with his child?” in a combination of music and poetry with von Goethe’s Erlkönig) treat us to a spiraling story broken up into ten individual tales. Each of these tales is told with absolute care and precision in both instrumental and vocal performance. Marjana Semkina shows us again and again how she can convey such soul-crushing or equally heartwarming emotion with barely more than a whisper, and at times leave us cold and weak on the floor with a chilling howl, while meanwhile the other half of the duo, pianist Gleb Kolyadin gives us the same treatment instrumentally: able to show great care and restraint in his playing, but also incredible amounts of power contained in his hands and his heart. All of this is especially evident in “Blue Sea”, which was presented in an earlier incarnation on 2018’s studio live album Ocean Sounds, and is now fully realized, and sweeps us off into the stars to fill our heads with imagery found in Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune or McCay’s Little Nemo adventures.
It’s always interesting hearing iamthemorning in a studio setting, though, because it’s almost as if there are two sides of the band. The band in a live setting can exist as Semkina and Kolyadin playing as a duo (as is shown in the recent music video with a live studio performance of “Ghost of A Story” from this album) or with their chamber band configuration, as found in the Ocean Sounds live album and Blu-Ray release. In the studio, however, all bets are off, and the listener never knows what they will find, which is such a treat when we’re confronted with huge moments like the dynamic and incredible “Gerda” from 2014’s Belighted album, and as we see sparsely throughout The Bell. This album definitely makes use of having sonic space to be filled and having great studios in which to record and work on layer upon layer of multi-tracking, but the songs are more subtle compositions this time so that the production value is a bit more subtle than on Lighthouse or in Kolyadin‘s recent debut solo album, also released by KScope and overseen by audio mastermind Vlad Avy. As much as iamthemorning gets categorized along with progressive bands, they sort of defy genre, which might be part of why their work appeals so much to this reviewer, personally speaking. And that defiance of genre is present throughout The Bell – it might be the most “chamber” feeling studio album they have produced so far, which, after such bombastic moments as we’ve seen with full drumming from Gavin Harrison (King Crimson, Porcupine Tree) on recent albums, or the masterful percussion of iamthemorning live band member Evan Carson, this feels incredibly intimate, and special, as if Semkina and Kolyadin have been busy working together on music made just for them, and have peeled back the curtain to offer us all a glimpse at the wonders on the other side.
Backing up a moment, it’s worth mentioning the song cycles presentation of this album. If one has studied classical music and understands the concept, then it’s an added bonus for the listener; however, for most casual listeners in the 21st century, it is not a distraction in the least. The album can be simply admired as a collection of ten songs that all work together quite nicely in an overall theme and feel.
For anyone who enjoys the band’s past releases, this album is sure to please as well. It’s not as immediate as Belighted or Lighthouse, and requires multiple listens before it starts to click (as I write this sentence, I am currently on my eighth full listen and lyrics and themes are still revealing themselves to me). As much as we see the band receiving critical acclaim lately (winning 2016’s PROG Magazine Album of The Year Award) and including guest musicians such as Riverside‘s Mariusz Duda, The Bell is firmly a statement of iamthemorning doing what they want, to please themselves musically, which may bring great pleasure to longtime fans, and could also possibly confuse newer listeners. Regardless, this is an album that deserves to be treasured, and listened to in the classic lights down, volume up sort of setting. There are amazing sounds contained within that truly deserve to be discovered and enjoyed.
Released by: Kscope Records
Released Date: August 2nd, 2019
Genre: Progressive Rock / Chamber Pop
- Marjana Semkina / Vocals, backing vocals, acoustic guitar (3)
- Gleb Kolyadin / Grand piano, keyboards
- Vlad Avy / acoustic guitar, electric guitar
- Zoltan Renaldi / Bass, double bass (1, 2, 6, 9)
- Svetlana Shumkova / Drums (1, 5, 9)
- Evan Carson / Drums, percussion (2, 5, 9)
- Andres Izmaylov / Harp (1, 6, 9)
- Grigory Osipov / Marimba (2, 9)
- Dmitry Tsepilov / Saxophone (1, 2)
- Ilya Leontyev / Trumpet (9)
- Mr Konin / Bells, accordion, clapping
“The Bell” Track-listing:
- Freak Show
- Sleeping Beauty
- Blue Sea
- Black And Blue
- Six Feet
- Ghost Of A Story
- Song Of Psyche
- The Bell
The Bell, in a strange way, might be iamthemorning's most ambitious album to-date, while also being deceiptively their most simple. There are layers and layers to be uncovered here, both sonically, and lyrically, and it is an album best heard with focus and clarity, not while driving or with distractions from people talking, workplace noise, or interrupting phone calls. Every album containing Vlad Avy's work – at least what I have heard so far – is an audio masterpiece, and this is no exception. As far as originality, iamthemorning are a strange and fantastical musical creature and just when we think we might have them figured out, they deliver a collection that once again has us astonished with what we've just heard. Their musicianship is stellar, and while I have spoken at length about Kolyadin's prowess as a pianist / keyboardist here at Sonic Perspectives in my review of his debut solo album in early 2018, it's worth noting how Marjana Semkina is utterly bewitching as a singer, and how it's always a treat when we can hear her in the studio, using her voice as the special musical instrument it is. And as always, high marks for songwriting, as iamthemorning never disappoints. In a weird way, the live in studio version of Ghost of a Story might actually be more enjoyable than the studio version, which is what prevented songwriting from being given a 10 here. That said, with each release, iamthemorning comes closer and closer to musical perfection, a lofty goal which is completely subjective and can never truly be achieved.