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Sunday, April 10, 2022

Wolves and Mirrors – Wolves and Mirrors (Klaeng Records, 2021) ****½

By Matty Bannond

Unusual questions lead to unconventional answers. In the same spirit, unlikely instrumentations can open up surprising musical pathways. The four-piece band Wolves and Mirrors has embraced this spirit wholeheartedly with their self-titled album that swims in complexity, revels in human fragility and explores limitless musical possibilities.

Wolves and Mirrors features eight compositions by Australian trombonist Shannon Barnett. For the first time, Barnett also wrote lyrics and sings the vocals on this album. She is joined by Heidi Bayer on Trumpet, Elisabeth Coudoux on Cello and Thomas Sauerborn on drums. “I wanted to combine songwriting and improvisation with this band,” Barnett said. “These three musicians are really sensitive improvisers, so I wanted to see what would happen if we got together. Sometimes, more can be said when you use unusual instrumentations.”

Flashes of cold lightning

Overseas I begins the album softly, with shivering percussion and coarse cello-bowing beneath Barnett’s ringing voice. The lyrics are taken from the Elizabeth Bishop poem Questions of Travel. The words on Overseas II are Barnett’s own, and they meditate on her experience of traveling and living in different countries. The third song, Mantra, showcases Bayer’s lemon-fresh trumpet sound. Sauerborn’s percussive accents are intelligent and intuitive. The composition presents a constant state of flux, building and destroying and rebuilding its rhythms and phrases.

Martyr was inspired by a visit to Hambach Forest, an ancient woodland in Germany where tree-dwelling protestors prevented an energy company from clearing space to expand an open-pit coal mine. The song begins with a driving brass riff. The lyrics ask the listener questions, Barnett’s voice flashing out through increasingly dense auditory cloud like cold lightning. Finally, the trombone moves to the centre of the sound. Barnett is a soul-meltingly communicative brass player. Her messages are beautiful.

Oil, water, footsteps, chains

The next track is Well, an oil-and-water soundscape where voices overlap but remain distinct and divergent. Mantra II is another highlight, where Coudoux gets a chance to show her deep affinity for experimental playing. The off-kilter composition has a nastier edge that is sharpened by clomping footsteps, rattling chains, shrieking trumpet calls and bare-soul lyrics. “I wrote this when I was feeling a bit lost,” Barnett said. “Some people in my life were being negative… so I wrote this mantra to myself.”

Fork-tongued, fragile

A more traditional chord structure and rhythm emerge in Song for Caroline (and Others), where Bayer’s trumpet hops into the spaces between Barnett’s fork-tongued lyrics before breaking free for a longer solo statement. A more choral piece, Phases, rounds off the album. Listeners get a last reminder of the glued-together-but-peeling-apart nature of this mix of instruments. It closes with whale-song sadness, a natural and fragile re-expression of Barnett’s cold-eyed but warm-hearted musical personality.

Vulnerable and vicious

The name of the band and its debut album are intimately connected to the sense of honesty and vulnerability that informs their collective sound. There is deep humanity in every note of the record, with stories told by complex personas through a show-don’t-tell approach. The lyrics and compositions are rich and authentic. And without a traditional bass instrument, Barnett’s orchestrations playfully fill and vacate the sonic space with great skill and subtlety.

“The mirror part of the name is about how everyone you meet in your life, every place you go and thing you do is like a mirror to show what you like and what you might want to change,” Barnett said. “The wolf is about a part of my personality that sometimes comes out. It can be vicious. I’m getting better at controlling it. But I think everyone has those parts of themselves... Or maybe it’s just me.”

The album is available as a digital download here .

You can listen to the album on BandCamp here :