[I must preface this review by shamefully admitting that Aquarium Eyes was my first exposure to Ritornell, and though I have since heard what I hope is the extent of their discography, I am choosing to write this as I first experienced it, without point of reference or pre-set expectations. A completely fresh perspective, and a pure response to what I consider one of the most impacting albums I have heard this year.]
If it had to be summed in a single word, Aquarium Eyes is simply a dream. I, however, am full of words, none of which can do this release any true justice. The album takes you on an incredibly thought-provoking journey, alternating masterfully-crafted instrumentals and cryptically poetic lyrical tracks, featuring the unforgettable voice of Miriam Mone (aka Mimu Merz,) whose quivering gently-accented vocals add an appropriately haunting quality to the already spell-binding musical dreamscapes. Throughout the journey, there are delicious jazzy tidbits that belie the extensive training and thorough musical backgrounds of talented duo, drummer Richard Eigner and pianist Roman Gerold, in addition to subtle electronic “filler” that provides an even further level of audible depth and intricacy. However, the primary melodies are driven by a variety of stringed instruments, a soft, but poignant piano and an array of percussives that are deftly interwoven and expertly mastered for a truly incredible auditory experience.
The opening track, “The Morning Factory,” is an excellent forerunner for the slowish, but steady pace of the album, and perfectly exemplifies the instrumental expertise that prevails throughout this sonic journey. Not a single song on the release follows what many would consider a traditional format; there is little to no repetition and both melodies and lyrics tend to follow an unhindered stream of consciousness, which is perhaps just another aspect of the release that makes it stand out so strongly among the myriad of phenomenal releases we have seen so far this year. Even though each track is distinctly unique from the ones surrounding it, I still caught myself repeatedly rechecking the track list and finding myself shocked that 3-4 songs had passed since I noticed the transitions between them, much less that each song was at least 3.5 minutes long! They compliment and expound upon one another in a remarkably cohesive fashion, in spite of the randomness of the content–much like the dream sequences of a single night.
“Urban Heartware” is the first of a handful of word-driven tracks that are sprinkled into the release, and recounts a “dream” that could be dissected, analyzed, and interpreted to pieces, but I have never been much of a believer in “dream-interpretation” instead allowing the brain to reflect the heart of my subconscious, and often simply enjoying the journey for what it is. That is how I feel “Urban Heartware” is to be taken: at face value, with an unsullied appreciation for the imagery of another’s dreams, a detailed autodidactic accompaniment to one of the album’s more electronic and rhythm-driven tracks. This album is Mimu’s official debut as a vocalist, although she has been working with Richard and Roman for some time prior to this release. She has had her spoon in many pots over the years, ranging from the graphic arts to the conceptual ones, and now finally dabbling in the musical. She fills this new niche quite comfortably and she is planning her own debut in the (hopefully) near future! One can sense her wanderlust in her lyrics, and I personally greatly appreciate her diversity in creativity.
The third track, “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” is an overwhelmingly thoughtful and emotionally-saturated piece, featuring some stellar & plucky cello work, over a gentle, but persistent foundation of drawn-out, monotonic strings and an impressively-crafted jazz-based rhythm. The song makes references to houses and heartbreak and leaves the listener with an empty feeling, because these houses listed cannot be “homes” if the heart is not there. This is followed oh-so-appropriately by another instrumental, the title track, “Aquarium Eyes” which lends focus primarily to a plaintive piano, intermittent cello, and a wonderfully playful and multi-faceted percussive score. It is Incredibly calming and to me is the beginning of the next and darker chapter of this strange and fickle dream.
“Cherry Blossom” is perhaps my favorite of the vocal tracks on this release. I love the questions, the poetry, the breathy seduction of Mimu’s ethereal alto.. I think that her intent is to induce a sense of wonder and loss.. loss of your grip on reality–that moment when you realize you might be dreaming (or not), loss of faith in your god or your perceptions. Even if your god IS listening, “do [you] have the same problems??” The cherry blossom is known for its fragility and the lyrics/poetry of this song discuss the blossom being “disguised by the first frost” and Mimu ends this haunting expose with the admission that only chance will allow her to pick one at all. Such is our quest for answers.
“Ono” is a funky little jazz-driven number, also instrumental, though darker in tone than the instrumentals previously heard on our dream-journey thus far. The rhythm is glitchy and unpredictable, aided by a spontaneous piano, but both following the pace set by the ever-honest cello and a handful of electronic samples that once again are so effortlessly intertwined with the acoustic instrumentation. “I’ve Stolen the Moon” follows up with one of the most impressive instrumental pieces on the album, intense and heavily layered with constant and quavering cello lines, a manic xylophone or two (or three), and a handful of eerie electronic pads, all set to one of the albums more “traditional” rhythms (by which I simply mean ‘more predictable.’)
“Tremble” is without doubt the “nightmare” of this dream. The strings and piano creep and prowl throughout, the percussives swell and taunt, and in the meantime a man/beast snarls back and forth to himself, on a mindless hunt for whatever can be devoured. The track would perhaps inspire fear in some, though personally I find it to be the most fascinating song on the album. Then again, nightmares have always fascinated me.. albeit more so in the morning. Then tucked in the midst of these divergent instrumentals, there is the reprise of “Urban Heartware,” a considerably more toned-down and minimalist version of the original and much a much-welcomed rendition that is as equally enjoyable as the original, particularly in the context of the latter half of the album.
The close of the dream/album is prompted first by “As We Swim Against the Tide” which is reminiscent of a symphonic warm-up, giving you a sense of anticipation that relentlessly builds until the end of the track. To me, this is most dream-like of the instrumentals. I find myself lost in the sea of strings, almost forgetting where I am sitting and what I am in the midst of doing. Although the entire album is recorded with the utmost precision and pristine-ness of audio quality, this track stands out to me in particular with its depth of range and flawless leveling. Truly a marvelous example of what this talented duo is capable of. The album ends with “Musicbox.” An aptly-named disintegration into utter insanity, following no rhythm or discernible key, it simply plays us out, throws us into our own dreams, and continues to provoke thought long after the final chimes fade off into memory. I was fascinated to learn that this track was apparently created by 20 individuals each turning their designated music boxes simultaneously.
Aquarium Eyes is incredibly well-rounded and impressively complete, more than proving the capabilities of its creators and I must applaud the decision to incorporate the voice of Mimu in this collaborative dream. With each listen I was able to appreciate the various aspects of each track a bit more and compiled a greater understanding of the lyrical imagery and musical intricacies. It is an album that inspires a certain amount of introspection as well as a questioning of what one may have come to expect from a song. It is a healthy and cathartic journey; and one that I highly recommend.
Words by hmCm