Personnel: Marjana Semkina (vocals); Gleb Kolyadin (piano, keyboards); Gavin Harrison (drums); Mariusz Duda (background vocals).
Russian duo Iamthemorning have been quietly issuing recordings since 2012. Their "chamber prog" sound came into focus on their Kscope debut Belighted in 2014. Gleb Kolyadin (piano and keyboards) and Marjana Semkina (vocals) recorded Lighthouse in London, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. They are joined by a cast that includes bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree, guitarist Vlad Avy, strings, winds, reeds, and even a choir on "Sleeping Pills." Lighthouse is a conceptual, narrative about a female protagonist's struggle with mental illness. It's strikingly poignant, with a somewhat eerie ambience that is never indulgent. "I Came Before the Water, Pt. 1" commences with the sound of waves lapping at the shore. It gives way to the pianist and vocalist in duo, setting the narrative stage with a nearly cinematic starkness. "Too Many Years" pairs an electronic effect to an aggressive piano vamp that gradually becomes the tune's motivic force. Edwin and Harrison engage in staccato cadences, and Seminka unveils waves of emotion on top as chamber strings fill the backdrop. The first half of the title number is just the duo in a jazz-inflected art song. After an a cappella section (in which Seminka's voice is multi-tracked), Riverside vocalist Mariusz Duda enters empathically, backed by strings, acoustic guitar, keyboards, and the rhythm section's backbone. Prog gets a fuller hearing on "Harmony," with Avy delivering a fine guitar break followed by a piano solo from Kolyadin that builds to a crescendo complete with time and key signature shift. "Belighted" builds a gorgeous bridge between classical crossover and melancholic pop. "Chalk and Coal" offers contrapuntal piano rhythms, spiky guitar, hi-hat, and snare breakbeats, a trumpet solo, and bumping bassline. The arrangement intersects jazz, avant pop, and classic prog (think the McDonald & Giles album). Seminka delivers a spoken, nearly whispered narration under her singing, adding dissonance and tension, as if her protagonist were conflicted to the point of a surrender to the darkness. It proves climactic. In "I Came to the Water, Pt. 2" she does, singing, "And so, walking into water, I accept my final defeat." The short instrumental "Post Criptum," led by Kolyadin's funereal piano, is ultimately an elegy. A bubbling bassline, snare shuffle, strings, acoustic guitars, and wordless singing carry this off on a deeply sad note. The music on Lighthouse is more restrained than on earlier albums but the concept warrants it. The control executed over pace, narrative, and arrangements is remarkably consistent and strong, making the set an inseparable whole. This moody direction is a brave one -- especially for a relatively young band trying to establish themselves. But Iamthemorning pull it off without a hitch. Despite referencing sounds familiar to many, this piano-and-vocal duo carve out a persona that's unmistakably their own. ~ Thom Jurek