iamthemorning - Belighted Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom Tollboothpick-of-the-monthThe combination of Gleb’s classical approach to composition with Marjana’s singing ability produces bold, melodic pieces that are distinctly modern, yet extraordinarily mature. Belighted is one of 2014’s must-purchase albums, from one of the decade’s bands to watch.

Artist: iamthemorning
Album: http://iamthemorningband.bandcamp.com/album/belighted
Label: Kscope
Time: 15 tracks / 56:00 minutes

If there is a terminological paradox in a “contemporary classical” genre description, iamthemorning – a band from St. Petersburg, Russia – have no problem with the incongruence. For students of English or connoisseurs of classical music who twitch while reading that, perhaps “chamber prog” is the better label for this act, whose music is certainly a unique junction of classical orchestrations, modern arrangements, and contemporary songwriting idiom.

The core of the band consists of classically trained pianist Gleb Kolyadin and vocalist Marjana Semkina. The pair often perform as an acoustic duet, though they have utilized various combinations of session musicians in the studio and on the road. Over the course of their three official releases (“~,” 2012; Miscellany EP, 2014; and Belighted), they have demonstrated rich songwriting ability, as much in terms of instrumentation and composition as in thematic depth. Marjana’s lyrics often juxtapose Shakespearean poetry with modern culture, weaving emotional stories with the quality of morality fables; Gleb’s compositions draw from various pools of progressive rock, classical sonatas, and even pop music. The combination produces bold, melodic pieces that are distinctly modern, yet extraordinarily mature.

Belighted was recorded in the space of exactly one month – from 13 March to 14 April. The album was mixed by Marcel van Limbeek and Gianluca Capacchione at Reveal Sound, mastered by Marcel van Limbeek and Justin Fraser at Area 51 studio, and officially released 15 September through Kscope records. As always, Gleb performed all grand piano and keyboard parts, and Marjana is responsible for all vocal work. All drum work was performed by Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree fame. Additional credits include Max Roudenko (bass), who now makes his third guest appearance on iamthemorning’s studio releases; Vlad Avy and Mark Knight (guitars); and Andres Izmaylov (harp). All string work on the album was performed by the Nevsky String Quartet, with the exception of "To Human Misery", "The Simple Story", and "Gerda," on which the string arrangements were performed by the Turner Quartet.

One of my favorite elements of iamthemorning’s music is their ongoing “Intermission” leitmotif – brief, sparse, and often instrumental tracks that have punctuated both of iamthemorning’s previous releases. Belighted opens with the dark ambiance of “Intermission IX,” resuming where January’s Miscellany EP left off. This brief, introductory piece is comprised of huge scales on the piano and Marjana’s distant vocals, with background keys played through an eerie, reverse delay effect, which altogether set the immediate musical context for Belighted’s second track, “The Howler.” From the start, the song is intentionally jarring – both to the ears and to the expectations, considering the band’s typical songwriting mantra as well as the significant dynamic shift from the previous track. If there’s one point on Belighted that deviates from iamthemorning’s “chamber prog” style, it’s this first full-fledged song. The band certainly brought grit on their first album – “Scotland” and “Monsters” come to mind – but those heavier sections felt more like compositional devices, whereas “The Howler” is a straightforward rock tune, built on the neck of the electric guitar. Grainy dialogue from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents filters through the gaps in Marjana’s breathy vocals, involving a case of alien abduction and mistaken identity. Maybe that idea is central to this track’s departure from the band’s identifiable style: an out-of-body experience, and an attempt – as Marjana put it – to show the naysayers that iamthemorning could “rock.”

Overall, “To Human Misery’s” is a much more gentle offering, as it returns to piano and strings as the principle instrumentation, supported by gentle electric guitar. The entire song sways with a shuffle feel, and the half-time choruses lend weight to the central refrains. “This is a toast,” Marjana said in her track-by-track interview, “to people who are content with being miserable.” “Misery,” therefore, is iamthemorning’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on people who are really only happy when their misery is the center of everyone’s attention. What better way to encapsulate that sentiment than with an acrimonious toast?

Faint yet dissonant jumbles of ambient noise precede a guitar and a music box synth patch, which together comprise the body of “Intermission X.” This brief, 50-second piece serves primarily as the introduction to “Romance:” another waltz, mostly comprised of strings and guitars, before Gavin Harrison’s drum rolls enter to bolster the second verse. Gleb supplements with piano as well – entering with a neat 16th note run, in tight unison with Gavin’s snare – and the track continues its dynamic climb on tremolo guitar and Marjana’s repeated lyric, “You were too good to fall,” until its abrupt conclusion.

“The Simple Story” adopts an ambient rock mantra for its opening structure, employing a warbling guitar effect that adds a different texture to Belighted’s overall organic sound. Bass and drums provide simple backing instrumentation before piano rejoins the mix and warm strings flesh out the background.

Ominous and stirring, Gleb’s piano composition on “Intermission XI” is arranged for a four-handed duet, utilizing both high and low registers of the keys. Dark, rhythmic sounds accompany the rapid trills, and this brief track fades into silence before it is 2 minutes old.

As its title might suggest, “5/4” opens as an instrumental waltz in 5-beat measures – the piano taking the first three hits, while pizzicato strings accent with the latter two. The composition transitions into 3/4 as Marjana begins to sing, then opens up into a loose, 6/8 refrain. This is one of my three favorite tracks on Belighted, all of which come one after the other at the core of the album. In particular, “5/4” boasts a number of structural complexities – both in meter and feel changes, as well as in the ebb and flow of instrumentation that characterizes this entire album. Also like many of the tracks on Belighted, its ending is an uncertain clutter of guitar echoes and lingering strings, which fade quickly into the next song.

“Crowded Corridors” is the longest track on the album, clocking in at 8:44 minutes, and is also my favorite overall composition. There are no drums to speak of, and the instrumentation remains sparse throughout, fluctuating with the story’s flow. At its outset, the track’s only instrument is Andres Izmaylov’s gorgeous harp, over which Marjana sings. Her lush vocal overdubs create a warm tapestry against the harp’s texture, causing the strings to leap out of the mix. Piercing electric guitar fills a brief interlude with echoing feedback, and when Marjana’s voice returns, it is joined this time by Gleb’s piano. At the 5:00-minute mark, the keys pass through the same reverse delay effect that we heard at the beginning of the album, before Gleb launches into a classical invention in the style of Chopin, stabilized at the 5:55-minute mark by what sounds like rhythmic tapping on the body of the piano itself. A warm organ patch accompanies during the final moments of this interlude. On its gradual way to concluding, the track revisits the earlier guitar work and even layers in some glockenspiel, accompanying Marjana’s inarticulate vocal parts, and ultimately fades to silence.

“Gerda,” the third song I particularly appreciate, is another example of Gleb’s intentional and dynamic approach to instrumentation. String harmonics and warm acoustic guitar form the introductory bed for Marjana’s voice as she sings of the coming snows of death, and of resurrection. Bass plays a prominent supporting role throughout this song, carefully structured to support piano and guitars. Following the second verse, strings swell into existence, and rhythmic toms undergird the final pass through the verse. “Gerda” fades out softly: a music box gradually coming unwound.

Belighted’s 11th track, “Os Lunatum” is a piano composition, and a particularly convincing display of Marjana’s vocal ability. It isn’t until the 2:20-minute mark that another instrument joins: first, a pair of guitars – one acoustic and one electric – that perform a solo in doubled unison, followed by restless bass stabs, ambient background noise, and finally strings that swirl and climb in volume until dissonant guitar feedback is all that remains.

“Intermission XII” begins with solitary cello, performing an emotive solo and fading into complete silence, before Gleb’s piano takes the spotlight. Thereafter, the keys and plucked strings provide the backdrop for the cellist to further extrapolate from the melody he initially established. As the final note lingers, Gavin’s methodic drums launch into “K. O. S.” This track clocks in at just over 6:00 minutes, and moves through meter variations of 9/8 and 4/4. Piano and guitar share and trade melodic scales in background support, before the guitar finally takes an extended solo. The final passage of the song is preluded by a double-timed 4/4 interjection, but becomes crunchy guitar and bass stabs, pounding drums, and Marjana’s final, repeated lyric: “Do think twice.”

“Reprise of Light/No Light” is a rhythmically loose composition, highlighting Gleb’s piano and Marjana’s voice for the first three minutes, accented by ghosted electric guitar notes. Bass, cymbals, and strings gradually join on the ascent, and the last pass through the verse involves full accompaniment: drums at a march tempo and trilling harp beneath the soaring string arrangements. The final seconds of this uplifting composition dissolve into digitally manipulated echoes, gradually re-focusing into the jumbled pizzicato strings of “Intermission XIII.” Rumbling bass, vaguely recalling a heartbeat, and uncertain ambiance slowly fade as Belighted comes to its conclusion, leaving Marjana’s voice all alone: “No way this story will ever set me free, so I am still here.”

Complex and well-rounded, Belighted is an album of lush, orchestral music, and retains the quality of performance and ideology that Gleb and Marjana first established with their debut release. Their material orbits an inescapable dynamic tension: musical themes that rumble but never quite explode, melodies that haunt but never linger, and compositions that are capable of crushing as well as soothing. There’s certainly an infusion of brooding darkness in all of their music, yet any tragic sentiment is augmented by a wonderful sense of beauty and hope, contrasting defeat with exultation. If you enjoy classical music or progressive rock, Belighted is one of 2014’s must-purchase albums, from one of the decade’s bands to watch.

Justin Carlton