Juana Molina is a good witch. See the front cover of this album: a bone is looking at us! And when a bone looks at us, we’re being watched by the entire history of paleontology. The bone is a sign of having been, it’s the last remain, after the passage of vultures, hyenas, rodents and worms. But the bone became lever, weapon and inscription surface. And the bone is also Stanley Kubrick, that name we invented for jumping from the monkey to the superhuman, as well as from the caves to the moon, to Jupiter and beyond. In ancient folk legends, buried bones were believed to be the cause of luz mala (‘evil light’, also known as ghost lights or will-o’-the-wisp), that strange halo which floats above the ground and scares travellers at night.
But Juana Molina is a good witch, and this particular bone isn’t sinister or menacing, it wants us to reconcile with its kind. It’s both playful and serious, ironic, imaginative and quite magical, just like Juana’s music. Halo is Juana Molina’s seventh album, and it pursues the experimental path she began years ago, marking a new milestone in the evolution of her own, unmistakable voice. She’s “on an evolutionary journey of her own devising” (Pitchfork), and pushes once more her “eerie, hypnotic” music “to increasingly haunting heights (as written by Spin magazine about her previous record).
The twelve tracks in Halo abound with hypnotic rhythms which seem to draw their energy from immemorial rituals; with timbral explorations and ever-changing soundscapes; with mysterious lyrics often touching on witchcraft, premonition and dreams, always used as metaphors for emotional states; with voices which sometimes move away from word and meaning to be reduced to abstract phonemes and onomatopoeia.
Juana approaches music in a very physical, intuitive way: every instrument and electronic resource is an extension of her body, and is used to express feelings and moods. It’s magic, in its oldest sense: art or techné, which articulates knowing with doing, in order to produce something which didn’t exist before.
Halo was recorded in Juana Molina’s home studio outside of Buenos Aires, and at Sonic Ranch Studio in Texas, with contributions by Odin Schwartz & Diego Lopez de Arcaute (who have both been playing live with Juana for a number of years), and Eduardo Bergallo (who has taken part in the mixing of her previous albums), with Deerhoof’s John Dieterich making a guest appearance in a couple of tracks.
Since the release of her acclaimed Wed 21 album at the tail end of 2013, Juana Molina has performed scores of shows around Europe, the US, Latin America and Southeast Asia. She’ll be back on the road from May 2017.
Arc Iris broke musical ground with the release of their acclaimed self-titled debut in 2014. The Providence, Rhode Island-based band quickly won over audiences in the US and Europe, supporting artists such as St. Vincent, Jeff Tweedy, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The group performed at the London Palladium and festivals including Bonnaroo, End of the Road and the Rolling Stone Weekender.
Released on Bella Union in Europe and ANTI Records in the US and, Arc Iris drew admiration for its innovative style and distinctive sound. “It’s hypnotic,” said the Boston Globe. The New York Times wrote of “songs that seesawed between the elfin delicacy of Joanna Newsom and some brassy raucousness.” The Guardian talked of “a shape-shifting treat” while new music site The Line of Best Fit proclaimed, “Arc Iris is traditional music thrillingly positioned at the nexus of the old and new.”
“Moon Saloon,” which was released on Bella Union in August 2016, constitutes a natural progression from the first album’s whimsical explorations and energetic diversity. Produced by the group and mixed by electronic music producer David Wrench of FKA Twigs and Jamie xx fame, the album showcases beat-heavy melodies and textural, groove-riding rhythms. It developed from the band’s distillations of musical influences, combining traditional elements with percussive structures and dense, beguiling harmonies.
In many ways this second album captures Arc Iris’ musical odyssey as a band. “It has a heavier sound, more intense,” says Arc Iris keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller, who makes liberal use of sampling in many of the songs. The group matches an unusual array of organic acoustic instruments with layered electronic sounds.
Lead singer and lyricist Jocie Adams, Tenorio-Miller, and drummer Ray Belli form the core of Arc Iris, all virtuosic musicians in their own right. Adams spent eight years as a key member of indie darlings The Low Anthem, effortlessly zipping from hammer dulcimer to clarinet to bass to vocals, sometimes barely pausing to take a breath. Her 2011 solo debut, Bed of Notions, sparked a musical beginning that became Arc Iris. Joining Adams on Bed of Notions was cellist Robin Ryczek, a conservatory-trained musician who toured with Jethro Tull and founded a rock school in Afghanistan.
To help launch Arc Iris in 2012, Adams teamed with Ryczek and the musically agile Tenorio-Miller, an established indie-rock keyboardist for well-known talents from Gene Ween to the New Pornographers’ A.C Newman to Kimbra. Later that year Tenorio-Miller brought in his longtime friend Belli. The two toured with Jon Anderson of Yes when they were just 16.
Arc Iris strives to reach the songwriting integrity of the Greats—Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen—while exploding the boundaries of pop music. The group bridges the digital computer music of Radiohead and Bjork to Brazilian Tropicalia, to Bowie-esque performance art.
As the band members see it, “Moon Saloon” works like a song cycle that parallels the arc of Everyman’s passage through modern day dilemmas. According to Adams: “The album is meant to be cathartic. There’s an imbalance in everyone’s lives. When there’s often so much going on, we yearn for simplicity.”
The album starts with “Kaleidoscope,” mimicking a kind of fanciful stroll down the street, and ends with the title track, “Moon Saloon,” a delicate soliloquy in a strange, desolate landscape. These pieces bracket compositions that can burst into lilting orchestration or energetic piano chords. The album sometimes offers a sharp counterpoint to the dark, mean-spirited nature of current American political discourse. One example is “Paint with the Sun,” a paean to those who help others in need. Soaring over each song is Adams’ ethereal voice, often joined in close harmonies with other members of the band.
On “Moon Saloon,” the three musicians—Adams, Tenorio-Miller, and Belli— are complemented by Robin Ryczek; Max Johnson on bass; Mike Irwin on trumpet; Charlie Rose on pedal-steel guitar, banjo and trombone; and Martha Guenther on background vocals. Josh Page, a member of the group Forte, lent his booming tenor voice to the track “She Arose”.
The album was recorded in just two days at Dimension Sound Studios in Jamaica Plain, MA, but speed was essential. When the band members trekked to the studios, a surprise awaited them. Arc Iris received a last minute request to join St. Vincent on a European tour. In order to make the tour, the recording session was cut short. A few days later the group was on a plane to London.
Adams wrote most of the songs during a songwriting retreat on an island in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee several months before the recording session. For Adams, it was a week-long creative rush with no electricity, no running water, no cell phones—just a bed in a cabin and an acoustic guitar. She took her work back to Providence, where she and Tenorio-Miller worked on the songs, layering sounds, developing ideas, “transforming them into the world of Arc Iris,” Tenorio-Miller recalls.
Belli crafted the rhythmic backbone, typically based on a close reading of the sound. “Ray’s very musical and extremely patient,” Adams says. “He pays close attention to the story. It makes sense because he’s a writer who is also a terrific drummer.” Belli continues to publish essays and short stories between gigs.
Dan Cardinal, who engineered Arc Iris’ first album, also worked on “Moon Saloon” at Dimension Sound. The group considers Cardinal an extraordinary craftsman who can intuit musicians’ quest for the right sound. “He reads our minds. He knows what we want before we tell him,” says Adams. “Plus he’s super-relaxed and works very fast.”
Since the release of Moon Saloon, Arc Iris embarked on a tour reimagining Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’. Whereas acoustic guitars and minimal arrangements are some of the hallmarks on Mitchell’s original recording, Arc Iris’ interpretation of the music is bold and modern. The band mixes the sounds of symphonic analogue synths, heavy drum beats, and sampling, while the iconic songs themselves are never swallowed up by the tide of these inventive arrangements.
The recent months have not been spent idle. In late 2017, Arc Iris teamed up with Guster’s lead singer, Ryan Miller to form the offshoot band, Bwahaha, and in early 2018, Arc Iris joined Kimbra on her North American tour.
Arc Iris has attracted numerous fans around the world as the group’s stage performances become storied events themselves. Space domes reveal giant golden wings in flight while montages light up the backdrop with evocative images. Above all, the group’s love of music is a shared passion that comes alive with each song. As diverse as their musical interests and influences have been, the band members find avenues for producing a blend of soul-satisfying sounds that are truly their own.