Guest Review: Ian Gates on Lea Bertucci’s Metal Aether (NNA, Feb 9)

Lea Bertucci’s latest album, Metal Aether, sounds like the space its title suggests: a dense, echoing chasm of supernal saxophones and fluttering field recordings. Fans of her previous album, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, will likely appreciate Metal Aether’s ambient, electroacoustic atmosphere. Her new LP trades All That Is Solid…’s anxious strings for ominous drones. It swaps brief, blissful harmonies with tape collages that sometimes submerge her songs in showers of shifting static. Metal Aether feels like a fresh, natural progression of Bertucci’s style. She retains her strong sense of dynamics and space. A tense energy permeates the record, even during many of its quieter segments.

“Patterns for Alto,” the album’s opener, abounds with this anxious energy. Chaotic saxophones race against each other, building a residual ambient hum. The piece sounds like traffic patterns on a busy city street in a dream — it may reflect the New York-based composer’s urban environment. After “Patterns for Alto”’s breathless buildup and sudden ending, “Accumulations” marks a stylistic shift. Brooding saxophones tentatively creep into the mix and uneasy microtones and shrill brass glissandos seem to foreshadow a harrowing climax. The piece’s title, even, suggests a gradual layering of sound, a buildup of layers into something gigantic. It never reaches that point, however. “Accumulations” instead fades into jittering tape noises, which combine with the saxophones to create a sparse and vaguely jazzy soundscape. One venue’s advertisement for Bertucci describes her as “…unafraid to subvert [listener] expectation[s]”, but perhaps indulging them would have been better here.

“Sustain and Dissolve”’s first ten minutes feel equally insubstantial. Bertucci’s layered saxophones phase in and out like supersaws, creating a fairly peaceful yet disengaging full-on ambient detour. Occasional dissonant moments filigree Metal Aether‘s least developed segment. Eventually, though, the thin wall of brass crumbles into something more interesting: a distorted, muffled prepared piano resonates like a bell while lo-fi field recordings give way to paradoxically chaotic and subdued whirring tapes. The track’s latter half submerges the listener in a warm ocean of bubbling analog glitches and found sounds drenched in dense digital processing. “At Dawn” builds on “Sustain and Dissolve”’s interesting parts. The piano returns as a bell, but far more ominously. Tape recordings rustle and flutter like leaves in a windstorm, creating a natural and organic chaos. Sharp, resonant drones occupy the piece’s higher register briefly, complementing bustling crowd noises. Bertucci puts down her saxophone for this piece, and it feels like welcome sonic variation after its droning omnipresence in the lengthy first halves of the middle two tracks. “At Dawn” ends the album as successfully as “Patterns for Alto” begins it, even though the two pieces bear almost no similarities.

The fact that Metal Aether’s beginning doesn’t resemble its end testifies to the album’s sense of development. Bertucci successfully evokes different emotions and creates distinct atmospheres in each track, yet the album still feels wonderfully cohesive. Overall, Metal Aether surpasses its isolated weaknesses, establishing itself as an original and well-developed work.

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