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Petra Jean Phillipson – Notes On: Death

Nichola Eastwood


On first glance this double CD set seems impossibly pretentious, coming as it does with a blurb on the back explaining how Petra has been scheduling her recordings around the ‘electricity of the full moon’.  Not the best first impression I’ve ever had.  Once you get past the artsy clutter that is the front cover and the fact this fifteen song collection has been split into two discs labelled ‘noir’ and ‘blanc’ (presumably a reference to the light and dark side of the moon) there actually lies a decent body of work.  Sure the song titles are off putting at first (Ask the Gods to pull down the Sky and Kill you Drink you in particular make you feel as though you’re about to embark on a self indulgent, Gothic epic) but persevere and you won’t regret it.

On the first listen it becomes apparent that there is a kind of logic to splitting this album in two.  Both ‘noir’ and ‘blanc’ open with an instrumental but that really is where the similarities end.  Underworld Tubeophany is the first track on ‘noir’, literally a second short of thirteen minutes it’s a giant, and an eerily creepy one at that.  This track really is what it says on the tin, a sinister bout of bassoon, trumpets and trombone.  Surprisingly though, this instrumental is totally listenable.  You’ll find yourself wondering how thirteen minutes snuck out the door without you even noticing.  ‘Blanc’ could not be more of a contrast if Petra tried, it opens with the inventively named Imaginary Gentle Place, a harp solo that is both cheerier and more approachable than its darker counterpart (not to mention a heck of a lot shorter).

Following the menacing introduction to ‘noir’ City of Lost Angels comes as something of a shock to the system, electric guitar races to the fore and Petra unleashes (for the first time on the album) her enviable vocals, think a hybrid between PJ Harvey and Kate Bush and you’re on the right lines.  It’s mellow rock that reaches a weird crescendo half way through.  And Lilith said unto Adam continues the adventure into the lighter side of Petra’s mind.  It’s a sweetly sombre moment on ‘blanc’ with Petra’s vocals assuming a husky air surrounded by the tinkling of a xylophone.  This gentler version of Petra’s siren like voice is perfectly suited to the softer and more upbeat tones on ‘blanc’.

My love resides in the Garden remains in keeping with the darkly experimental note of ‘noir’.  It commences with barely audible birdsong…yes, actual birdsong, which oddly enough manages to maintain the record’s creepy aura.  A bout of acoustic guitar breathes life into this track alongside Petra’s vocals which come into full swing here.  Kill you Drink you isn’t as dark and gloomy as it may sound, a sombre number with vocals that are akin to a chant, it’s really more reminiscent of Bat For Lashes in their more downbeat moments.

Returning then to the lighter side of this mammoth collection, ‘blanc’ charges on with the Kate Bush-esque Dark nights of the Soul.  Providing one of the most memorable highlights so far, this track is one of the more touching numbers present with the harp taking a leading role.  All at Sea holds on to the uplifting feeling, mellow guitar and the flute blend alongside violin and tambourine, not only demonstrating pretty dam effectively how diverse a musician Petra is, but giving the song an almost medieval sounding quality.  Ask the Gods to pull Down the Sky whilst in possession of a hideously pretentious name is an apt and ghostly end to this Gothic tinged folk.  Petra takes her leave of us drifting out with a sombre hum.

Be warned, this follow up to Petra’s debut (Notes On: Love) is not an easy listening record.  It’s music designed to intrigue and make you think, perseverance is required but is well worth the effort.  There’s certainly enough variety to keep you hooked, with no question of Petra’s diverse talent and sublime vocals (when she chooses to use them).  Stick with it and you will undoubtedly find yourself happy that you did so.