Switched On – Julianna Barwick: Healing Is A Miracle (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Julianna Barwick has enjoyed a near-constant stream of productivity in the last decade, but for many reasons Healing Is A Miracle feels like a defining moment. Apart from being her first album for the Ninja Tune family it marks the point where, after 16 years, she moves from East Coast to West, from New York to Los Angeles.

The title is a reference to the ability of the human body to recover itself after sustaining damage, Barwick marvelling at the way cuts and bruises heal themselves – and it appears to be a metaphor for the next stage of her life too. The recording methodology was also different, using monitors instead of headphones for the first time, which proved a revelation.

Healing Is A Miracle includes three collaborations, each with a close friend.

What’s the music like?

Barwick makes some of the most emotive ambient music you can imagine. While some producers opt for the distanced approach, allowing their music all the room it needs to operate away from human contact, Healing Is A Miracle offers further evidence of a rare ability to make ambient music right from the heart.

Despite the intimacy she achieves with the vocal material in particular, her studies in reverberation have resulted in enormous, cathedral-like textures. Inspirit, the first track on the album, is a softly recurring chant but with a big, surrounding echo, and when Barwick adds the bass sounds to the mix the music stops you in your tracks with its heart stopping beauty.

The collaborations are really nicely judged. Jónsi’s voice works in close harmony with Barwick on In Light, the Sigur Rós vocalist just below the melody but closely matched, before the big beats open the music outwards, seemingly toward the stars. Oh, Memory has a greater delicacy in the company of Mary Lattimore, its weightless vocals hanging on the wind, while Nod, with Nosaj Thing, builds layers on a breathy loop before adding beats, after which it pans out again to a consoling coda.

The title track has long, sustained keyboard sounds that hang on just a bit longer than the vocals, giving an even greater feeling of space. Flowers has striking sonorities, scaling mountainous heights but with an earthbound bass presence too, which grows to take over the track completely.

Does it all work?

Yes. With Julianna Barwick the listener really does inhabit a whole new world, and if escapism or mental clarity is what you are searching for then you have definitely come to the right place.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. Even within the output of one of the most consistent ambient artists, Healing Is A Miracle is a touchstone, an album where everything falls into its natural place. For an emotive out of body experience, you would really struggle to do better.

Stream

https://open.spotify.com/album/4GaLdSDDbRK0CoJKSnihbo?si=6km9Wq-3Sl-ChT2-kH8nZg

Buy

On record: BE – One (Rivertone)

be-one

Ben Hogwood writes about the first release from an environmentally conscious label.

The first long playing release on Caught By The River’s Rivertones imprint, Be is the simply-titled moniker used by a group of musicians assembled to highlight the importance of the honeybee, their aim to provide a soundtrack for the UK pavilion at Expo 2015. The musicians, headed by Wolfgang Buttress, include the Sigur Rós string section Amiina, Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, Youth and cellist Deirdre Bencsik.

What’s the music like?

Extremely restful. The musicians of Be make their points with great subtlety, using field recordings to aid the imagination of natural sounds as they might be heard by the honey bees themselves.

The Journey, the first extended piece of nearly twenty minutes, begins with the clicking sound of the wren, the chirp of a singing robin and the buzz of the bees. Gradually shimmering strings come into view and a pure chord of C major is established, and then sits suspended in mid-air. The music is deceptive, for although it moves very slowly closer inspection reveals a lot of activity – rather like a beehive.

Bencsik’s cello comes into its own on the following piece Into, given expansive freedom over a soft, consoling piano phrase. Each piece of music is lovingly prepared, but given all the room it needs.

Does it all work?

Yes – this is music for the hazy atmosphere of a sunny early morning, requiring absolutely no effort to enjoy. For background listener it provides an ideal and lasting ambience, while closer inspection reveals the detail of the honeycomb in lovely technicolour. As you might expect from anything headed by Caught By The River, there are some beautiful images in the accompanying booklet, given the love and attention the music deserves.

Is it recommended?

Yes. A set of music that will calm even the most anxious of minds!

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here: