I’ve had this CD in my collection for well over a decade now — it represented one of my very first excursions into the “darkwave” world of the venerable Projekt label — but I’ve always held it a little at arm’s length. Though I’ve always liked the CD well enough, I’ve tended to (subconsciously) dismiss it as something of a Cocteau Twins’ rip-off, and instead, became more enamored with the band’s later, more electronica-oriented releases (Flux) and incarnations (Lovespirals).
But blame it on the recent wave of chilly, rainy weather that has swept through Lincoln: after several years, I picked Idylls — the debut CD from the now defunct Love Spirals Downwards — off the shelf and it’s been in near-constant rotation since.
Let’s get the obvious out of way: the Cocteau Twins are Idylls’ most obvious point of reference, particularly Treasure and Victorialand. Ryan Lum’s guitars create the same sort of jawdroppingly gorgeous soundscapes as those produced by Robin Guthrie, Suzanne Perry’s gorgeous voice echoes Elizabeth Fraser’s gossamery glossolalia, and beneath it all, there’s the cold, artificial thump of a drum machine (which serves only to highlight the music’s ethereal aspects).
But upon returning to the CD after all these years, I think I’ve been able to approach it with a clean slate, so to speak, and to my surprise and delight, I’ve found that Idylls certainly steps out of the Twins’ spotlight and stands on its own.
Perry’s voice proves surprisingly versatile, moving from Fraser’s angelic cooing to an almost Middle-Eastern tone (“Scatter January”, “Forgo”) that gives the music its own special feeling of exotica to a state of complete bliss-out in which she’s more than content to drift along to wherever Lum’s guitarwork might lead (“Love’s Labour’s Lost”, “Noumena Of Spirit”).
As for Lum, well, he may be certainly indebted to Guthrie, but he’s certainly no sycophant. The acoustic-based “Love Labour’s Lost” could almost pass for a Lothlórien folk standard and both “Eudaimonia” and “Waiting For The Sunrise” are explorations in guitar ambience, especially the latter, which eschews any sort of percussion or any similar “earthly” element for a golden sound that’s truly fitting given its title.
Meanwhile, “Dead Language” and “Stir Among The Stars” are darker, harsher tracks that fall firmly under the “darkwave” umbrella championed by Projekt. “Dead Language” in particular is a chilly, goth-y delight; Lum’s guitars grow increasingly brittle and frantic, eventually exploding into icy shards that ricochet off the drum machine and threaten to impale Perry’s fragile banshee.
For all of its sonic depth and obtuse concepts and imagery, the so-called “dreampop” genre can often be incredibly easy to dismiss. After all, how many times does one need to hear lots of effects pedals and an angelic-sounding female voice before you’ve heard pretty much all that the genre has to offer?
It’s tempting to simply stop with albums like Treasure and Victorialand as they seem to perfectly encapsulate everything that is good and golden about the genre. And yet, Idylls is proof that there is plenty of room in the genre for artists who, despite being heavily influenced by those albums (among others), are more than capable of conjuring their own unique sounds. It just might take a few years to realize that.
Note: This is a review of the original 1992 release of Idylls. In 2007, Idylls was remastered and re-issued with several bonus tracks.