The first second of “Stabat mater”, track four by the Catalan duo Tarta Relena Fiat Lux, is a moment of such elusive and delusional beauty that you wish it could last forever. It is not immediately obvious what the diaphanous and floating sound is, or if your headphones may be playing. But when the sound is repeated after a brief burst of vocals, the voices of Helena Ros and Marta Torrella unite in immaculate harmony, the penny falls: Tarta Relena has made her breathing a hallmark, converting what most of singers consider it a musical by-product into a captivating climax of their very rewarding debut album.
This attention to detail is typical of Tarta Relena, so to speak. whatever is typical of two musicians who once dubbed their music ‘progressive Gregorian’ and who tackle everything from traditional Georgian song to a composition by the 12th century Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen on Fiat Lux. Throughout their small but impeccable catalog, Tarta Relena has exercised exquisite control over their music, both in the refined telepathy of their text-to-speech and the sparse musical touches that accompany it. Fiat Lux is an album where every breath counts and every note is deployed with precision, the duo’s voices supported by a fine mesh of electronic touches and hair effects from producers Juan Luis Batalla and Òscar Garrobé.
“El suïcidi i el cant” uses a cavernous electronic bass for exactly four notes halfway through the song, their perfectly weighted melodrama heralding a shift in the song’s emotional weight, like dark clouds briefly obscuring the song. Sun. The second half of the song sounds positively furious, Ros and Torrella’s vocals filled with the volcanic anger the bass predicts. “Esta montanya d’enfrente”, in the same way, uses the weakest whiff of electronic sound, ringing in the ears from the bottom of the song, to add texture to the duo’s magnificent vocal coupling, bringing in this Sephardic song. traditional into the 21st century on the best of musical beds.
Tarta Relena’s mysterious choice of material might make her music seem dry or academic, the work of librarians and archivists rather than poets and provocateurs. But a racing heart runs through the record, and the ultimate payoff is a devious pop side that’s more evident on Fiat Lux than in the duo’s previous work. ‘Me yelassan’, the traditional Greek song that closes the record, weaves its way into a hand-clapping rhythm that plays drums and bass like a Rosalía hit, or the Diwali riddim which dominated the dancehall in the early 2000s. “El suïcidi i el cant” is an adaptation of the traditional poetry of the Pashtun women of Afghanistan and colored by the “terrible augustOf 2021, when Taliban forces took control of the country. But the song’s crazily catchy melody is backed up by a scuttling electronic beat that brings it to the brink of pop music, even as the song turns its searing musical narrative. There is even a touch of erased humor in the title of “Relatable content”, a sound interlude without words that leads to the home straight line of the record.
Perhaps Tarta Relena’s greatest achievement on this gripping album is that their work sounds both musically unique and emotionally familiar, traversing centuries of tradition and geographic divide to connect on the human level, like an ancient remedy for Egyptian hangover or some crass Sumerian joke. Fiat Lux feels timeless, a finely detailed work of archaeological adventure, where the excavated emotions run deep.
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