San Francisco’s The Classical are Juliet E. Gordon’s voice, Britt Ciampa’s drums and a selection of samples, some instrumental, some not. That the components usually cohere very effectively is testimony to intelligent, disciplined structuring within a track and the thoughtful sequencing across an album that has characteristic signatures yet manages to display remarkable variety. The lyrics are forceful: in some cases startlingly so, in other places somewhat overwrought as if Gordon is trying too hard to be a latter day Baudelaire of the Bay Area.
At its best, Diptych is challenging in the best sense of the word. It’s an intriguing set of soundscapes. On opener ‘The Blue Room’, the studied languid delivery of the words gives way to industrial clangour which, in turn, is displaced by a pellucid poignancy.
Throughout, Gordon’s stage school training informs her impressive delivery range, while Ciampa’s ability to (at times) complement and (at other times) contrast though a variety of percussive styles is most impressive. Some of the most effective material here is the less aggressive, the more stripped down to bring out the considered rhythmic vocal effects and sensitive sampling, as on ‘Byzantine Tango’ with its echoes of Morricone’s Italian horror flick scores (best represented on the 2005 compilation Crime and Dissonance).
At time, the ambitious reach exceeds its grasp, but when the duo decide to focus on a few points at a time rather than presenting an abundance of ideas almost simultaneously, the results are quite extraordinary. An example is ‘Sicily: Catacombs’ with its careful enunciating of Gordon’ musings on mortality through her disturbing visual imagery. The train of thought is well defined and all the more arresting for its resisting the piling on of fascinated revulsion.
Jay Pellicci’s mixing is masterly, bringing out the energy of the explicit and the nuance of the implied with notable skill, as in ‘Escapeboards pt I’ with its shifting shapes of sound swirling around the words, and in ‘Our Lady of Revenge’ with the discordant brass effects hinting at an insidious substantive presence behind the fragile façade of the far from romantic utterance, “You’re so good to me.”
Given the starkness of the music at times, and the duo’s working name, The Classical invites suggestions of thematic and stylistic links with Greek tragedy and, at times, what comes to mind are the powerful drama and occasional histrionics of Pasolini’s films of Sophocles and Euripides. Indeed, now and again, Juliet E. Gordon conveys a sense of the ‘primeval’ that one reviewer ascribed to Maria Callas’s (non-singing) interpretation of Medea. If the two can continue to maintain the balance between the controlled and the dionysiac, the dramatic effectiveness of the performances will be sustained powerfully. What we have on this disc is definitely tinged with the colour of performance art but, so far, admirably avoids self-indulgent self-expression. The judicious use of sampled effects adds to the many moods without over-emphasising any one of them. Gordon and Ciampa (and the ever-thoughtful Pellicci) recognise the importance of avoiding a cluttered narrative and of taking the listener with them through some fraught chapters.