Personnel: Melanie De Biasio (chant, flute); Pascal Mohy (piano); Pascal Paulus (synthesizer, background vocals); Dré Pallemaerts (drums); Bart Vincent (background vocals).
Recording information: Sunny Side Inc Studios.
Editor: Benjamin Joubert.
Photographer: Alexandra Ionescu.
Arranger: Melanie De Biasio.
When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal in 2014, it was embraced by jazz critics, DJs, and club audiences simultaneously. Gilles Peterson was so taken with its monochromatic ambient textures, stark arrangements, and clever improvisational intimations that he commissioned an album of remixes. Blackened Cities is not a conventional follow-up, but an adventurous endeavor rife with risk. The release consists of a single 24-minute track that unfolds like a suite. The conservatory-trained Belgian vocalist and flutist and her longtime musical associates -- Pascal Mohy on piano, Pascal Paulus on analog synths and clavinet, and Dré Pallemaerts on drums (with guest double bassist/cellist Sam Gerstmans) -- deliver a full-scale sonic drama that crosses a wide musical expanse and evokes an encyclopedia of stylistic references, yet comes across as a totally original whole. Its title comes from impressions of postindustrial cities De Biasio visited on her international tour: Detroit, Manchester, her native Charleroi; each has a storied past and a devastated façade, yet reflects its own unique beauty and tenacity.
Recorded live in the studio, Blackened Cities began as an unfinished three-minute idea brought in by the singer and left open for group interpretation. It starts with a whisper, a single organ-esque chord followed by a cello, before its lone guidepost enters: Pallemaerts' nearly constant, always inventive drumming -- shuffling, syncopating, circling -- is the pulse that signals each wave-like segment. (The spirit of Tony Williams on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way is redolent.) The musical reference points are wildly diverse: Nina Simone (the cover of "I'm Gonna Leave You" on No Deal was a watermark), the piano vamp from the Doors' "Riders on the Storm," Julie Tippetts with Brian Auger, Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, Simin Tander, Annette Peacock, Portishead, The The's "Uncertain Smile," Judy Nylon, and more come and go unhurriedly. The work gradually builds and then builds some more, without ever ratcheting up in intensity. Even at its most improvisational, Blackened Cities retains its moody, spatial, and spectral sense of groove. De Biasio delivers her lyrics in flowing extensions and deconstructions; the instrumental themes emerge from and vanish into them. Her unique phrasing employs the same maxims of silence and space that her musicians do. Even her own flute break uses an economic palette, elastically balancing harmony with breath. But in its creative leap, Blackened Cities retains all of the appealing elements heard on No Deal. As the track eventually washes into silence, it becomes evident that it had to stand as its own release. This aural travelogue's sensual cool, brooding tension, and elegiac tenderness are inseparable from one another. It is complete, but even at this length Blackened Cities ends all too soon. ~ Thom Jurek
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