What would happen if you were to take deep, dancehall vocals and place them over avant-garde classical improvisation before lacing each layer with experimental frequency patterns? The admittedly low-key consensus is that the results should be displeasing or unpleasant, a doubtful mashing of styles that share very little when placed side by side. With P.A. / Hard Love, the critical tendency has been to focus on both the differences that exist within these genres and how shocking it seems that they appear here so natural alongside one another. But although their stylistic directions diverge so spectacularly, Marina Rosenfeld, Okkyung Lee, and Warrior Queen hold more in common as conceptual artists than any genre dissection or lofty debate concerning categorization might allude to. Sure, the three musicians come from a diverse range of backgrounds, but it’s the individual artistic preferences that make this album so fascinating as they unite in collaboration, regardless of the technical approaches they have separately showcased in the past. On P.A. / Hard Love, Rosenfeld brings collective attributes together in a way that transcends the restrictions of genre experimentation, and the resulting sound remains positively delightful.
Based predominantly in New York, Rosenfeld has been turning heads with her distinctive art installations and abstract recordings since 1993, when she first scored Sheer Frost Orchestra. It’s a grating, hypnotic composition that explores high-frequency string arrangements that are performed by 17 women, each playing electric guitars and nail polish bottles positioned across the floor. The piece was originally written while Rosenfeld was still a student, yet it provides a splendid example of how her curiosity for the atypical has bloomed, while her means of realization have continued to stray away from the norm without once looking back. From cover versions of György Ligeti involving a 34-voice teenage choir to ambient acoustic turntablism performances, Rosenfeld possesses a spirit of inquiry that comes founded in the depths of electronic improvisation and string resonance, which are also essential to her latest work: throughout the course of six mesmerizing tracks, she pushes the envelope by presenting her exploration in the most intricate of artistic platforms.
P.A. / Hard Love sees Rosenfeld teaming up with Warrior Queen (reputable for her vocal contributions alongside The Bug) and Okkyung Lee (New York-based avant-garde cellist and past Rosenfeld collaborator) — two artists who practice very different types of music and whose individual efforts are the central cause for surprise that this joint offering works so nicely. But in spite of that, each artist remains at the forefront of creating fresh ideas and intriguing practices within their own sphere: Jamaican singer Annette Henry, a.k.a. Warrior Queen, has been recording rap and dancehall music since her early teens and has brought those traditional approaches to UK dubstep; Lee is a classically trained Korean musician famed for exploring the outer most limits of acoustic noise recordings. Both artists are renowned for testing the confides of their associated styles, and that binds them together in a way that’s far more understandable than thrashing around at the edges of the genres they expand upon.
These poignant and daring approaches are charged deep within the album’s core. The styles work so well here because of the musical values each artist holds so dear — this isn’t about the concept being so damn crazy that it just has to work. The album opens with an expansive glitch/drone section that’s interjected by distant whispers, rattled glass, and faint string resonance. When Henry’s vocals kick in, they are doused with dub-like echo and reverb that give the melody a haunting feel, as Rosenfeld’s frequency-shifts creep across the dancehall chatter. It’s a startling effect, partly because the backing track is minimal and delicate, pushing against the forceful nature of the vocals that Rosenfeld coincidentally flew out to Kingston in order to record. The stylistic juxtaposition is given greater purchase on the following number, “Seeking Solace / Why Why,” where Lee’s presence can be felt even more as her drawn-out thrusts cradle Henry’s lyrics: “Gotta focus ‘cause I gotta survive” she presses before the track’s saddening climax: “He was the love of my life/ How could this be,” “Lost in my thoughts like a lonely sea/ With blurred images cascading my mind.” The vocals loop and ricochet to the throb of long-form drone and careful cello fibers, creating an atmosphere that is immediate and powerful in the context of Rosenfeld’s field recordings.
The feeling of a close and mysteriously vibrant atmosphere is propelled by the initial premise for the album’s content, which saw Rosenfeld collecting a number of field recordings from New York’s Park Avenue Armory and Liverpool’s Renshaw Hall car park as part of her P.A. project back in 2011. In their new environment, each sound complements both the forceful vocals that writhe throughout and the gritty cello that lingers beneath the surface. Although the album is brilliantly carried by these hovering soundscapes, there are moments of distinctive percussion within the music, particularly on “Hard Love,” which is driven by glitch loops and tape-reel samples that also play host to some of Henry’s most unreserved vocal stylings. But even though so much power comes projected in the Jamaican singer’s voice, perhaps the most overwhelming track is “New York / Empire State Of,” which features no vocal inclusion whatsoever. It’s Lee who brings this particular section to life, with minimal strings and bass resonance that just pour over the setting like liquid iron, while you watch the flickering lights glide about some futuristic metropolis in a lively, frantic twilight.
The combination of artistic variance and sonic textures deployed here is little short of genial. P.A. / Hard Love not only binds the finishing touches of a field recording project that has been neatly assembled with experimental overtures, but also goes far beyond the congenial meeting of minds and the consequences of bringing together a series of unexpected genres. There is a deeper motion at work here, which carves something fascinating out of a base curiosity to create a multifaceted aesthetic plane. It works tremendously without so much as contemplating how these genre-specific attributes meld across such a strange and beautiful formula. Of course, the genres sound at odds when they are crashed upside each other as objective descriptors, but as a complete force, the music these artists have arrived at here is exemplary under Rosenfeld’s direction.