Since its beginnings in the late 1990s, the string quartet Ethel has grown to become a powerful force in new music, premiering over fifty new works in the last three years alone. Incorporating amplification and improvisation into their performances, Ethel’s style is infused with traces of jazz and rock and roll, culminating in a unique and powerful voice.
Released six years after their previous album Light, Ethel’s Heavy marks the group’s third self-produced album. The packaging, designed like a 7” EP with cover art fitting of a rock band, hints at the music found on the CD. But it’s the album’s title that is a dead giveaway for what the listener is in for: a sustained, in-your-face sound that borders on the edge of rock and roll at times—a sound that Ethel achieves remarkably well.
The album begins with two pieces heavily influenced by soul and jazz: Don Byron’s “String Quartet No. 2: Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye” and John Halle’s “Spheres.” Byron’s piece is a quick, four movement reimagining of Marvin Gaye songs, the third movement of which was previously released on Ethel’s Light album. “Four Thoughts” is a dynamic piece with a lot of variety, although the brevity of the movements (between two and three minutes each) is a bit disappointing and leaves me wanting more. I wish the pieces developed more over a longer period of time so the listener would have more opportunity to enjoy the brilliance Byron manages to fit into a two or three minute time slot. Halle’s piece “Spheres” is an homage to Thelonius Monk, based on “Straight, No Chaser” and “Brilliant Corners.” The nearly distorted strings and textured rhythms of Halle’s piece keep the intensity of the album rising from one song to the next.
Recalling Halle’s “Spheres” is Raz Mesinais’s “La Citadelle.” Both pieces begin similarly with distorted string riffs that quickly give way to higher strings. While there is the clear influence of jazz in Halles’s piece, “La Citadelle” is focused elsewhere and is less infused with an American sound. The difference in the way Ethel approaches both pieces is apparent: a grittier, higher energy sound used for “Spheres” and a lighter, calmer style reserved for “La Citadelle.” Commissioned by Ethel, “La Citadelle” was inspired by the last flight of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, pilot and author of “Le Petit Prince.” The piece evokes the feeling of flying over the Sahara desert and even captures the moment when de Saint-Exupéry’s plane begins to fall out of the sky through the use of descending glissandi.
Two standout pieces on the album are written by Bang on a Can founders Julia Wolfe and David Lang. Wolfe’s “Early That Summer” is both astonishingly beautiful and aggressive. High, pure, melodic lines are punctuated by sharp attacks that strike with the intensity of a late Beethoven string quartet. One can only imagine how many bow hairs were sacrificed to produce such energy in the recording studio. Ethel perfectly achieves the balance between strong force and delicate lightness in a wonderful interpretation of Wolfe’s piece. Lang’s “Wed” is about as far from heavy as you can get. Serving as a break to the rest of the album, “Wed” is painstakingly beautiful, and its contrast with the rest of the pieces makes it a distinct track on the album. The fragility and purity that Ethel puts into the piece is remarkable and displays the diversity of the players and their ability to adapt to different playing situations. The sheer beauty that Ethel is able to get out of this piece make it easily one of the best tracks on the CD.
Like Lang’s piece, John King’s “No Nickel Blues” also manages to break up the monotony of Heavy. “No Nickel Blues” begins with a slow, gritty violin solo that falls into a groove reminiscent of an old spaghetti western soundtrack. Improvised solos follow, displaying how dynamic of a group Ethel is. The whole piece feels like a laid back jam session, infused with a completely American sound. In a similar fashion, Kenji Bunch’s “String Circles” calls to mind American folk music. For “String Circles”, Bunch joins Ethel as an extra violist, creating a string quintet. The piece begins slowly and quietly, evolving quickly into a fast-paced groove with a folky melodic line. At less than five minutes long, the length of the piece is slightly disappointing in a similar way Byron’s “Four Thoughts” was, but “String Circles” more than makes up for that with all it is able to pack into such a short amount of time.
The final piece on the CD is Brazilian film composer Marcelo Zarvos’s “Rounds.” The piece seems promising, but it quickly breaks out into a riff that feels like it belongs in a cheesy pop song. Nevertheless, the piece serves well as an end to the album: it finds a balance between the extremes of the heaviness and intensity of most of the pieces and the lightness and beauty of Lang’s piece. It is a feel good ending to an extraordinary album.
Ethel has succeeded remarkably with Heavy. Wonderfully written pieces combined with expert playing and a variety of styles have produced one of the best albums I have heard in a long time. Everything is great about Ethel’s new release, and the only issues I have deal more with the songs themselves and not Ethel’s performance. After a six year wait, Ethel seems to have hit all the marks perfectly with Heavy.
Ethel, Heavy (Innova, 2012) | Buy it on Amazon