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Astrïd and Rachel Grimes – Through The Sparkle


Astrïd and Rachel Grimes - Through The SparkleThe French neo-classical collective Astrïd has been playing together for the best part of twenty years. Back in 2012/2013 after various e-mailed correspondence, they invited the pianist Rachel Grimes, most well known for her US-based collective Rachel’s, to attend a gathering in the French countryside and see what might come forth from such a collaboration.

Now, I am not familiar with Astrïd, so this was a new one on me, but I have really enjoyed the recordings I have heard by Rachel’s and was therefore looking forward to seeing what this union had to offer. For me, Rachel’s’ brand of contemporary chamber music (if you like) was quite unlike most of what was coming out of the States in the nineties. Due to their love of the music and their commitment to it, they produced some spellbinding and atmospheric albums.

On Through The Sparkle, Grimes has taken piano duties and the four members of Astrïd are flitting around Rachel’s gentle reveries like bees around a particularly lovely flower. With seven tracks spread across a little over forty minutes, there is plenty of time for the tracks to develop and reveal themselves, and also for subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) transformations to take place as the tracks evolve.

Opener “The Herald En Masse” comes on like a fast waltz with Rachel’s simple, lilting piano leading the way as violin and drums weave in and out of the patterns produced, peaks and troughs of drama being produced as the track ebbs and flows with the undulating rhythm. It is a delightful opener with a frolicking woodland kind of feel. For me, as lovely as Rachel’s were, there was a taut, serious feel to the songs, whereas here I feel that Astrïd are allowing Rachel a whole lot of freedom to move as she pleases and for the band to react to her in a natural and joyous way.

I was surprised by M5″, which has that kind of widescreen, desert space for which Calexico are so well known. The reverb-y guitar has so much space for the notes to echo off those imaginary desolate canyons that when Rachel’s delicate piano is introduced, the listener is disturbed from a dust-infused white hot reverie. The piano is jaunty and changes the tone of the track as it spars with the most delicious bass clarinet. There are acres of space for the instruments to settle around one another as hollow drums patter in the distance like the faraway sound of horses.

The band sounds so extraordinarily in tune with one another, each allowing the others all the space and time that is required for the tracks to naturally unfurl. There is a touch of Erik Satie in the slow and relaxed “The Theme”, with plenty of space and the playfulness of experimentation. The band seems thrilled to be playing together and are just using these opportunities to see what works and how things feel. There is a sense of attempting different harmonies and textures as the clarinet plays hide and seek with vibes. When the piano picks up the original motif in a slightly different key, you feel that the circle is complete.

There is an element of Alvin Lucier to the repetitive stabbing piano of “Mossgrove And Seaweed” and its high, keening clarinet. It is simple and expressive, but has that overwhelming feeling when we lay on our backs and watch the sky for half an hour and drink up the minute changes in the patterns of snow-white clouds against a backdrop of powder blue.

A special mention must be made of the percussion on this album, which is understated but utterly compelling. When we hear the Dirty Three-like shuffling snare pattern on “M1” we are thrown once again into the desert, snakes uncurling from the night’s cold as a weak sun gradually warms things up in preparation for the piano and violin duel sitting ahead of meditative nylon guitar figures. It transports and soothes in equal measure.

Through The Sparkle has delighted me more and more as I have listened to it, but the feeling that I take from it is that of Rachel Grimes finding an ensemble that have welcomed her into their hearts. Astrïd have the capacity to not only work with her, but nurture that sense of freedom that her piano playing displays on this album. It is as if she started as a guest and gradually she and the band have formed into one. It is a testament not only to Astrïd’s strengths as players, but also their musical empathy. A sheer delight.

-Mr Olivetti-

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1 comment to Astrïd and Rachel Grimes – Through The Sparkle

  • Colin Barnes

    It is an exquisite recording, I agree. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this for a long while having become familiar with Rachel’s, Rachel Grimes as a solo artist and Astrid over the past few years. It hasn’t disappointed. If you’d not heard Astrid before I’d suggest you hunt out their music. It’s lovely.

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