Well, ahoy there again, fellow seekers of musical wonder! My goodness, do I have a treat for you today…
As a seasoned searcher for sonic satisfaction, you might assume that I’d heard it all, and that there was little left to hear that might utterly astonish me. I must admit, I was beginning to suspect as much myself, becoming fearful that, though the quality of any new discoveries never fails to impress, the element of surprise was starting to wane somewhat.
That was until, however, by some divine intervention (usually referred to as the internet), I was delivered a copy of the astonishing album ‘Secret Beasts’ by the artiste nonpareil that is Toronto songstress Clara Engel.
What can I say about ‘Secret Beasts’? Well, initially, there was nothing I could say. For a man whose tongue is most often the most active muscle in his body (one of two, at least…) I found myself in a hitherto unthinkable position: I was rendered utterly speechless. The spell this album cast over me was so potent that my formerly formidable verbosity was wrenched wholesale from me. Only the sound mattered.
When finally I regained the wherewithal to utter as much as a single syllable, the only word my ravaged mind could readily assemble was ‘Wow’. After sitting for nigh on an hour repeating this, I managed to regain enough strength to dunk my head in a bucket of icy water and fix myself a quintuple whisky. Thus it was, composure almost intact, I was able to review ‘Secret Beasts’ and introduce you to it, it to you, and hopefully a great many people to the sheer, unparralelled genius of Clara Engel.
First things first: I doubt there are many singers on this earth whose voices could hope to equal that of Clara Engel. The lead instrument throughout ‘Secret Beasts’, as a musical device it truly stands alone. Deployed with both virtuoso flair and cyclone strength, it washes over everything here, lashings of all-consuming emotion sweeping unstoppably through every song. The power of her voice, both in its physical sense and its fervid passion, make Clara Engel an essential artist from the get-go.
‘Secret Beasts’, however, is a great album, one that showcases her voice to its utmost. With spacious, sparse arrangements, she wisely lets her lungs do the work, and, my god, it’s effective. The instrumentation beneath her consists mainly of acoustic guitar, brittle percussion, gently caressed piano and the odd shade of brass or strings, leaving Engel’s impassioned vocal alchemy where it belongs- centre stage.
From the opening track, ‘Break In The Sun’, I was enthralled. Beginning with no more than gently-thrumming acoustic guitar, ticking cymbal and a repeated vocal melody, strings seep in almost unnoticeably, building up like a wave from the centre of the ocean, ever growing until you feel you can barely ride along with it, but ebbing away into a beautiful ripple.
Suddenly, though, track two, ‘Ghost Opera’ ushers in a different Clara Engel, a feral, frightening chanteuse, bloodthirsty and wild eyed, growling, moaning and shrieking over a bone-shaking, spine-tingling bastardised blues, the kind of thing that could give even Nick Cave nightmares. Her raw-throated wailing shows you exactly what it means to feel a shiver up your spine.
As any great album should, the whole of ‘Secret Beasts’ moves seamlessly from track to track, a single journey in itself, but one that passes through wildly differing tracts of dramatic territory. Lyrically, Engel gropes her way around some very dark places indeed, not least the chain-gang chant and plea for neglect and abuse of ‘To Be Without’. Conversely, though, she can immediately haul herself skyward and burst into the brilliant sunlight of tunes such as ‘Old Fashioned Love’, a song that quite beautifully evokes exactly what it promises. Though, in the classic songwriting tradition, these may be depictions of love, loss, lust, tragedy and terror, they are cloaked in such a veil of impenetrable lyrical mystique that you could easily lose yourself amidst the swirling semantics.
‘Secret Beasts’ is an album of majestic contradictions. Engel can flip between delicate understatement and almost unbearable intensity in a heartbeat. For instance, ‘Madagascar’ may be built on such bare bones that even such an arch minimalist as Tom Waits might be tempted to say ‘Don’t you want to throw something else in there, like… I dunno… a glockenspiel or something?’, but her cataclysmic lung power takes it, and other songs on the album, to impassioned heights way beyond the sum of their parts. Similarly, throughout everything here, the heavy layers of grit and grime are juxtaposed exquisitely with shafts of shimmering light, leavening and illuminating it all.
I know, I should probably try to be more analytical and less emotionally led when it comes to reviews, and, in truth, the limited materials can give a familiar flavour to a handful of tracks on ‘Secret Beasts’, but not enough to usurp the distinct personality Engel invests into every song. There is no way you could pick out such a thing as a ‘weak’ track from this set. I can quite honestly say I have not heard anything quite like this album before, and it is a true delight to be able to experience it. From the brooding sub-sea clank of ‘Lick My Fins’ to the gorgeous gospel-infused uplift of ‘Blind Me’, each piece of the whole elicits its own reaction from ear and mind alike- something deep and intangible, a total emotional connection.
Special mention, I feel, must be made of one song in particular, one that left me literally giddy with elation, overawed and struck through to my very core. One song that defied me to write something emotive and polysyllabic, but merely left me gawping and goggle-eyed, able only to conjure that single sound- ‘Wow…’. That song is ‘I Have No Words’. I can barely begin to describe it. I find it scarcely believable that it could be the creation of any earthly agency. The sheer rush to head and heart is beautiful, powerful and utterly incomparable. All I could tell you is that you HAVE to hear it. It’s….well…amazing, more so than anything I think I’ve ever heard. Wow.
All that remains is to exhort anyone, no matter what your musical preference, to seek out this album, discover Clara Engel for yourself, and, most likely, find yourself utterly spellbound. ‘Secret Beasts’ is a spectral, effervescent tour de force, astounding in ambition and accomplishment, and I sincerely hope you can immerse yourself as deeply in it as I have.
Dr A.F.W Curio
Here’s a tantalising taster for you- Clara Engel performing a track from the album:
Clara Engel- \'Madagascar\'