One of the more beguiling albums i heard in 2020 was Flood Dream by New York duo LEYA. That being said, at the time i wasn’t at all sure what to make of it, except that it left me intrigued, fascinated and, in a way that i couldn’t really articulate, moved by its strange blend of Adam Markiewicz’s sombre violin and countertenor-esque vocals floating ethereally over Marilu Donovan’s detuned / retuned / untuned harp accompaniments. Embarrassingly, in hindsight, Flood Dream never featured in my Best Albums of 2020 list; it should have been very near to the top. i’m therefore not going to make the same mistake twice in my response to the duo’s latest release Eyeline. Despite being described as a “mixtape … not our new record”, Eyeline is nonetheless an even more engrossing demonstration of LEYA’s unique soundworld, expanded here through most of the tracks being collaborations with a diverse collection of artists.
Perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that i previously felt moved by LEYA’s music in a way that i couldn’t articulate. On the one hand, there’s no question that what LEYA have created here are songs, though – just as on Flood Dream – what exactly those songs are expressing is difficult if not impossible to ascertain. i think it may well be beside the point, or, rather, an attitude of expressive openness that projects the simultaneous possibility of melancholy lays and ecstatic paeans, depending on your personal perspective and preference. To that end, while each song theoretically has lyrics, for the most part they’re deliberately kept at a distance, rendered ambiguous though never abstract, just one element among many and not necessarily the most important one.
As previously, the tuning of Marilu Donovan’s harp is gloriously off-kilter, sounding not so much out of tune as tuned to an entirely individual system of notes that’s out of step with any known scale or mode. LEYA’s songs therefore occupy a realm outside conventional harmonic spaces. Sometimes tonality is strongly alluded to – opening track ‘DOG’, for example, is underpinned by a series of harp arpeggios that make the ear and the brain fizz at the almost-rightness of its triads – but often it’s simply an irrelevance, Donovan using the instrument as a vehicle for meandering exploration, glittering decoration or ponderous rumination. ‘Glass Jaw’ is arguably the most harmonically direct song, tilting between two chords while Markiewicz’s voice (bearing a strong resemblance to Jamie Irrepressible) slowly progresses through a huge, shimmering halo of triadic light, his words seemingly causing optic ripples to radiate outwards.
In some respects this is the paradigm for all the songs on Eyeline, voice(s), harp, violin and electronics coming together to create textures of varying density, the elements acting like different altitudes of cloud formations, at times impinging and coalescing, elsewhere simply moving past each other in semi-distant sympathy. The fact that, in general, the range of elements is small and their behaviours are kept simple, plus the relatively short durations of each song (just a few minutes each) perhaps gives the superficial impression of Eyeline as a collection of rudimentary ideas or sketches. Yet they’re nothing of the kind, each one an intense, single-minded, fully-formed miniature act of expression that sits alongside the others like alternate approaches to urgently articulate the same thing, as unfathomable as it is overwhelming.
Some of the songs demonstrate an obliquely ambient quality. In ‘Win Some’ a low, ponderous harp mingles with Okay Kaya’s vocalise and assorted pitches to give the sense of a small number of fragments combining to create a mobile-like music. Caught between stasis and flux, only in its latter stages does the song move beyond this, ramping up the speed and complexity to create a thick sonic soup. Similarly, ‘Michael’ uses Martha Skye Murphy’s singing and breathing as two parts of a semi-connected assemblage slowly turning in the same space. Sudden little surges of detail and the introduction or removal of bands of noise add to the simultaneous effect of progress and stasis, made exquisitely poignant by the way Murphy soars above the by turns austere and relaxed atmosphere the assemblage creates.
In such an absolute, unified soundworld as this, devoid of hard edges, the rare use of rhythm is heard as a genuinely alien presence. Apart from some repetitions here and there – which merely suggest rather than in any meaningful way adhere to something metric – it’s essentially limited to ‘Must Have Been Good’, in which light punchy beats periodically materialise; but their purpose has as much to do with pulse as Donovan’s harp tunings have to do with tonality, acting simply as just one of a number of passing ideas. The Actress remix of ‘Dankworld’ that brings Eyeline to a close pushes beats a lot further, and it’s the only track that sounds a false note, an odd one out that speaks less as an inclusive part of the album than a kind of optional bonus track.
It’s difficult to speak of highlights in such a cavalcade of delirious wonders as this, but the main version of ‘Dankworld’ is for me a standout song. Over slow, regular harp notes, Markiewicz projects a gentle vocal line that, over time, becomes more and more the focal point of an intimate, excruciating music, equally euphoric and doleful, suffused and surrounded by a rich string accompaniment laden with chordal convolution. Regardless of which end of the positive-negative continuum you hear it, it’s staggeringly beautiful.
Released by NNA Tapes, Eyeline is available on cassette and download.