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A Lily, "Saru I-Qamar"

Saru l​-​QamarMy familiarity with James Vella is primarily through his role running the excellent Phantom Limb label, but that is just one facet of a varied career, as he is also a fiction writer and a member of the Canterbury-based post-rock ensemble Yndi Halda. He records as a solo artist too and has been sporadically releasing albums as A Lily for almost two decades now. Notably, Vella is also of Maltese descent, which inspired this wonderful stylistic detour: Saru l-Qamar is assembled from tapes of home recordings archived by the Maltese heritage organization Magna Żmien. Naturally, that made my ears perk up immediately, as I often enjoy the crackling and hissing escapism of dispatches from long-dead people in far-flung places, but the “oneiric bliss” of Vella’s achingly beautiful and hallucinatory collages proved to be an unexpected and welcome enhancement. This is one of my favorite albums of the year thus far.

Phantom Limb

The album’s title translates as “They Became The Moon,” which is a lovely and poetic way of saying that the lives and loves of previous generations remain part of the fabric of our lives forever (like the moon, they are “always present, but always out of reach”). Naturally, Vella’s own family surfaces (in the cover art), but the bulk of these recordings are snatches of traditional Maltese folk songs known as għana. Normally, the phrase “folk song” conveys a canon of specific songs and lyrics that have existed for generations, but għana departs from that tradition in being a malleable song form that people can use to tell their own stories. According to Vella, “from the ‘60s until the modern era, it was common for Maltese families to receive reel tapes from relatives abroad,” as that was simply how people shared news with distant friends and family. In short, Maltese people had their own cassette underground in which they regularly exchanged personalized songs with each other. Unsurprisingly, I am now retroactively mad that my own family never exchanged songs about mundane events like getting a new cat or whatever. Life could be so much more beautiful than it currently is.

Notably, the history of għana is a fascinating rabbit hole of its own, as it apparently originated as a way for Maltese women to share news and gossip as they engaged in household chores on rooftops or communal wash houses carved out of caves. One of għana’s variants in particular is Għana tal-Fatt, which is a “melancholic ballad style” that translates as “fact” and was used to share interesting or humorous stories, local news, or colorful anecdotes about the various characters in their lives. This facet alone makes me dearly wish that I spoke Maltese, as the few translations that Vella provides reveal unexpected context and meaning to these pieces (“there was a burglar in the house yesterday” being a personal favorite, though “do your utmost to spend all your money at the feast” is a close second).

The compositions themselves are simple and effective, as almost every piece is built from little more than melancholy Middle Eastern-sounding vocal loops over a synthesizer backdrop. While Vella notes that there was “minimal DAW intervention,” the vocal loops are enhanced by “a lot of audio cleaning” as well as some effects. The opening “Żeżina Ddoqq is-Sħab (Zezina Plays the Clouds)” provides a fine introduction to the album’s aesthetic, as a frayed snatches of a beautiful and sad vocal melody fitfully erupt from a muted backdrop of woozy and flicking synth shimmer. Vella subtly fleshes out the music a bit more as the piece unfolds, but the vocal sample remains the focus and gradually transforms through added harmonies and wah-wah. It feels melancholy, dreamlike, and ecstatic all at the same time and resembles some kind of space music séance with a digitized ghost, which is quite an excellent stylistic niche in my book.

The rest of the album could reasonably be described as variations on those same themes, but Vella manages to imbue each piece with its own distinct character despite his minimal palette. For example, the following “Kemm Nixtieq Li Qed (How Much I Wish it Were So)” delves into even more hypnagogic territory, as the vocals are more submerged and the synths feel more slippery, shimmering, and viscous. Elsewhere, “Flimkien Ngħaddu Mill-Bieb (Together We Pass Through the Gate)” feels almost like an autotuned outsider soul deconstruction, while “Ħajti Kollha, Qalbi (My Whole Life, My Darling)” feels like psychotropic drone music in flickering suspended animation. That said, I could probably write an entire paragraph about every single song on the album, as damn near every single piece features either a wonderfully haunting loop, a great spacy synth motif, or some kind of hissing and immersive textural fantasia.

In fact, it is entirely possible that the textures unexpectedly steal the show on this album, which was presumably no accident. Based on 2017’s Ten Drones on Cassette project (“each cassette is limited to one copy, and each cassette has a different piece taking up a complete 45 minute side”), it seems safe to say that Vella is a big fan of both physical media and cassette culture in general. As I am also a longtime fan of cassette culture, it was a legitimate delight to discover that Vella enlisted Sean McCann for the album’s mastering. I bring that up precisely because there was a brief stretch during the 2007-2012 underground cassette explosion in which it seemed like damn near every great new tape I discovered ubiquitously featured some kind of mastering/production credit for Sean McCann. For me, McCann’s mixing sorcery practically defined an era. While Saru l-Qamar was released on vinyl rather than cassette, Vella and McCann beautifully manage to recapture the same murky, hissing, and tactile magic of that brief drone/psych golden age. This album is absolutely mesmerizing (especially on headphones).

Listen here.