National Music Reviews
Caterina Barbieri = Mort Garson + Tangerine Dream + Hannah Peel
Caterina Barbieri has, very literally, done her homework—a master’s degree in classical guitar and two BAs in electroacoustic composition and ethnomusicology, to be specific. She didn’t pick up FM synthesis or electronic music as a mere hobby; Spirit Exit and the eight album-length releases that have preceded it are the fruits of Barbieri’s scholarly research, the product of rigorous, passionate study, and it shows.
Spirit Exit juggles a great many ideas (both musical and otherwise), some of which I probably lack the qualifications to adequately comment on, but the one that interested me personally the most is this: What does “progressive electronic” music sound like nearly four decades after the advent of mainstream electronic music? The sonic spaces Barbieri occupies were first explored by trailblazers like Klaus Schulze and Ryuichi Sakamoto throughout the 1970s, and while their disciples have found no shortage of worthwhile ways to expand on the fundamentals their forebears laid down, they’ve also rarely sought to incorporate influence from the less high-minded schools of electronic music that sprang up throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Now, in 2022, EDM has grown into a genre with a rich and nuanced history of its own. In keeping with Barbieri’s steady drift away from harsher, more firmly avant-garde composition, Spirit Exit borrows choice bits of musical vocabulary for an album that, while not EDM in any traditional sense, manages to construct patient, melody-driven songs in something resembling a post-EDM context.
The most obvious Exhibit A for this, “Broken Melody”, practically begs for a trance remix, all cooing vocals and punchy synth hits smudged with electronic interference. It’s only one crisp 4/4 away from being a full-on synthpop jam, but that one-step-removed-ness cleverly highlights Barbieri’s careful attention to production and sonic framing. In the absence of the percussion that the rest of the arrangement constantly implies, the ear is instead drawn to the ebb and flow of the track’s atmosphere and the way it surges and falls into pantomimed rhythmic pockets. As much as it sparks the imagination as to what a more “traditional” rendition might look like, “Broken Melody” is cleverly built to be its own uniquely rewarding listening experience. The same goes for “Terminal Clock”’s deep bass pulses, turning a dancefloor nsst-nsst into an ambiance that seems to breathe with a life of its own.
Despite these feints toward outright accessibility, Spirit Exit remains a well thought-out and artful album by a virtuosic composer and producer, and it ultimately abides by those standards first and foremost. Barbieri has gotten comfortable painting with bright, fizzy saw waves and square waves, but in terms of compositional structure, Spirit Exit tends to hew much closer to the aforementioned first wave of progressive electronica. Songs unfold gradually, encouraging a more immersive, almost textural listening experience. “Knot of Spirit (Synth Version)” and “The Landscape Listens” both exemplify Barbieri’s gift for exploring timbre and musical negative space, letting cascades of arpeggios ring out over one another until the contours of the melody start to soften and blur. Opener “At Your Gamut” makes for an appropriate introduction to the album, too, simultaneously lavishing the core melody with bold neon tones while steadily adding detail to the pads it’s paired with.
Between the fearless stabs at high-art poptimism and the extended exercises in hi-fi cosmic beauty, Spirit Exit offers just about everything a fan of cerebral, creative electronic music could want. Perhaps some moments, stripped of a full album of context, feel closer to science experiments than actual songs, a process of letting tunes play out until they stop reacting with their environment. Although, taken as a whole, this album shows that the line between science and art can be a fine one and that a deft touch like Barbieri’s can showcase both the beauty in seemingly mechanical music and the technical complexity of dreamlike soundscapes. –Nic Renshaw
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