“I wanted to explore the feeling that relationships right now can be very disposable. People call their divorce attorney so quickly — and I’m not saying that divorce isn’t the answer for some people, because it is — but, I do think there are people that don’t really want to look in the mirror and look soon enough.” -Tori Amos, Huffington Post Interview
It’s safe to say alternative rock veteran Tori Amos was a bit nervous when the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon record label commissioned her to record a 21st century song cycle based upon classical music pieces from the some of the greatest composers of all time. In a recent interview with The Independent she made the statements “I mean, how often does a woman get to fiddle with the masters’ source material? I wanted to do it for womankind, but I also knew the stakes were high. If you get this wrong you can’t shrug it off like a bad night at the karaoke.” and that same cocktail of enthusiasm stirred together with jitters in several other conversations during the press of this album. But can you blame her? Afterall, the songs on Night of Hunters are adaptations from well known compositions from Bach, Satie, Chopin, and Debussy just to name a few.
It was not only the approach to composing songs off of these composers that caused anxiousness among those involved in the project, but the subject matter of the song cycle, about a woman who has been left in the dying embers of a failed relationship and spends the night searching for answers within herself and through conversations and advice from a shape shifting creature named Anabelle, who makes herself known on the record through several tracks by the voice of Tori’s 11 year old daughter Natashya “Tash” Hawley. In another section of the Independent interview, Tori exclaims that her husband Mark Hawley, who is also the recording and mix engineer for Night of Hunters and has been a part of Amos’ recording process since her sophomore release Under the Pink, expressed a rather hysterical display of worriment, stating “‘Jesus, wife! The press will have us divorced after the first week’s promo!'” Tori followed it up with “..the truth is I’m crazy about him. We’ve weathered a lot of storms and outside forces, but we’ve been together 16 years.” and later, in Spinner “They can think whatever they want. I don’t care. As long as we’re still kissing inappropriately in the kitchen and [my daughter] Tash yells at us to get a room, it’s fine.”
Even through all of the wishy-washy feelings Amos has presented through various means of conversation, Night Of Hunters, her 12th album finds the songstress going back to basics. The album is completely stripped of any electronic instruments, synthesizers, and percussion samples that we’ve come to hear a lot of within the sonic realm of Tori’s world, and instead focuses on an album more similar to her first two records Little Earthquakes and the aforementioned Pink. It’s a completely organically recorded record, completely acoustic and ambitiously put together with an extreme focus on translating the musical themes found within the album in the most respectful and authentic manner possible. Musicians were recruited from the Apollon Mustagete Quartet and The Berlin Philharmonic principle clarinet Andreas Ottensamer and specific arrangements were made for them, as well as other miscellaneous strings and Woodwinds by John Philip Shenale, who had assistants copy and proofread the work before even presenting it to the individuals who had to play it. “I have to confess that it was bliss working with T on Night of Hunters,” Shaenale spoke to Popmatters. “We talked for at least one hundred hours about this record. The amount emotions and deliberations and ponderings and weighing was incredible. [This is] the most complex project I think I personally have worked on, from musical/dramatic perspective for sure, but what was evenheavier was the emotional investment—the dreams, the considerations of narrative. Every few bars mood changes slightly, very little is repeated.”
Reading through the work done to prepare for the recording of Night of Hunters may come off as ensuring the record comes off translated in a way that’s safe, but if you open the record to any great pop recording, from the large productions of Michael Jackson’s Thriller to the more modern, one woman powerhouse Speak For Yourself by Imogen Heap or hell, even Little Earthquakes, you’ll notice there are individuals involved in the making of such critically approved and fan adored releases that are pivotal to the success of the sounds achieved that make the experience of the album a memorable one. In this case, it’s the experienced classical minds that have come together to collaborate with Amos to transcribe the variations taken upon the classical themes in the best possible way to create a balance between the new terrains explored and the core of Tori’s musical body, which are the lyrics, the voice, and the piano.
The balance is reached with flawless precision and you need to look no further than the album’s opening track to notice this clash of genres weaving an entanglement of complimentary melodies and phrases within each other. “Shattering Sea,” a loose variation on the sparse, moody Charles-Valentin Alkan composition “Song of the Madwoman on the Sea-Shore, Prelude op. 31 no. 8“ breathes new life into the song by speeding up the pace of the original piece and giving it a more angst-ridden, heavy Bosendorfer piano riff drive with an even angrier, almost an anger-confusion hybrid feeling of emotion through the vocals that opens the record up in an abrasive and attention grabbing passion.
“That is not my blood on the bedroom floor. That is not the glass that I threw before” proclaims Amos over her keys and woodwind instrumentation. It’s a proven theory among fans that the opening tracks on an album from this woman are always absolutely astonishing and this is no exception. Sounding like a woman more pissed off than the one we find on Boys For Pele, it’s a mark on semi-familiar ground and toward the song’s end point, we find several stereo mixing techniques on Tori’s vocals, from the vocal doubling in the chorus, to the panning technique used during the phrases post-chorus that start with the word “every”. One phrase panned center with the next phrase being panned hard right to give a small call and answer, back and forth banter. It’s a subtle, but extremely effective use of a traditional mixing technique that creates a small bit of pop vibe through the rock and classic blend.
In fact, it’s easy to point out that the main point of focus of mixing techniques found on Night of Hunters are subtle and traditional. The truth is, strings, woodwinds, and piano aren’t in need of much help sonically – sometimes it’s best find the best means of mic placing and engineering the original recording as best possible, than the glitz and sparkle found within an emphasis on outboard gear and studio magic tracks. Mild compression is used within the instruments, but most of the time, despite the raised noise floor that’s periodically present through the mixes (which is refreshing to hear in a world where noise floor can be swept under the rug by means of filtering it out. The noise floor adds a certain traditional ambiance and is never in the way of the tracks), you wouldn’t notice, because the gain reduction is set perfectly to not allow you to hear the compressor working (so if you’re looking for a pumping effect, go elsewhere), but instead, act as moderate automation in volume for moments the instruments may spike up and peak at a higher meter position than wanted.
The only real means of studio magic you hear are on Tash’s vocals, mainly the equalization of her voice and compression that helps maintain a steady vocal level, instead of having Tash’s dynamics stumbling all over the place. This is heard best on, well, every song she’s featured on and is partly the reason many of the tracks with Natashya sound a bit off to listeners who have complained about the presence of Tori’s daughter on the album. Most of the album, such as “Cactus Practice,” finds a call and answer, duet of sorts among the two ladies and the differences in how the two come together in the mix are described odd at best. Throughout Tori’s career, she’s always had a more direct focus on the lower and mid frequencies of her vocals, to give her more of a darker, more sturdy and demanding edge, where as Tash’s vocals are very light, very fluff, with frequencies extremely boosted in the upper numbers, from 2kHz onward. You can hear every click of the tongue, every syllable spoken, and every breath taken by the young woman and it’s because of that EQ and compression technique and even though Tash’s vocals may sound great on their own, when you place the two ladies side by side in the same song, the chemistry of the mix is slightly thrown off.
It’s also very likely Tash is using a Blue Bottle microphone on her voice, or one like it, which has an extremely good frequency response and is normally used for recording, well, basically anything. It’s emphasis on high frequencies translate great in any mix, but I doubt the same mic was given to Tori, instead, it sounds like a more standard ribbon microphone of a different manufacturer, which could also cause some issues when the two sources are placed in the same track.
Natashya doesn’t always sound out of place though, and thrives on the song “Job’s Coffin,” which is almost entirely a song of her own, save for a few lines here and there delivered by Tori. “Since time why do we women give ourselves away? We give ourselves away thinking somehow that will make him want to stay, make him stay” Amos laments honestly over the track based off of the group of stars found in the Delphinus constellation, looking down upon the two woman, asking what the protagonist of the story is going to do and go from this point in her life where the relationship has crumbled. The track is a more simple lyrical piece and delightful break from the Torism’s that we’re used to researching and scratching our heads at through most of her catalog of music.
Speaking of Torism’s, look no further than “The Chase” a song based very closely off “The Old Castle” by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky. The track finds Tori and “Anabelle” shape shifting into hares, greyhounds, fish, otters, “Flying Thing” aka falcon, and yes, the Anti-“Cornflake Girl” turns into a grain of corn. It’s an extremely exhausting listen, almost cheesy musical dialog-esque feeling and is one of the only full lyrical and vocal downfalls found within Night of Hunters. It sets up the departure of the two nicely though, with Anabelle leaving Tori with a Fire Muse, voiced by Tori’s more mature sounding 20 year old niece Kelsey Dobyns on the title track of the album. Her voice, although still amateur, is a bit lower and slightly more mature sounding and is a better match when paired up against Tori.
As we backtrack through the album’s musical themes, we find that the songs, once placed in their respective order once through, can be played at random, with a meaning, but no meaning is more directly clear than the beautifully short and effective instrumental “Seven Sisters”. It’s one of two songs that interpolates inspiration from Johann Sebastian Bach (This one, being “Prelude in c minor“), but strays extremely far from the original composition, offering a slower and more poly-rhythmic flow with the piano and clarinet offering a call and answer (are we noticing a musical theme throughout this record?) and playing off of each others melodies for a 2 minute and 47 second run. It brings together the duets throughout the record, the battling between each other and with oneself, and is yet, could be considered the free spirit of album, allowing itself to be the glue of the concept told in Night of Hunters, is a beautiful intermission to the album’s ending track “Carry,” which we reviewed last month, and a work of art able to stand on its own without knowing any back story. This one easily goes down as one of Tori’s most stunning musical creations in her entire catalog to date.
Through all of it’s critical acclaim it’s gained in the media, it’s possible Tori Amos fans are having Night of Hunters leave a bit of a sour taste in their mouth and it’s not too difficult to see where it’s coming from. We’re all used to the narratives, the brutally honest lyrics, and unapologetic absence of fear when attacking important issues not many artist’s would dare tackle in any section of the industry (how many times have you heard a bone chilling song like “Me and a Gun”? Not many..), so it’s a bit difficult to dive into an album so enthralled in the musicality of it all, the composition of it all, and having the music speak for itself while characters and situations arise in a long form narrative form, as opposed to having certain sections of the album dedicated to characters a la 2007’s American Doll Posse or a loosely post 9/11 based Scarlet’s Walk and having the lyrics and melodies be the driving force behind the concepts. There’s also the theory of not wanting an Amos-Family album of sorts.
However, it’s a much higher road Tori has taken on this journey through the night with us, and one that is more cohesively told if you listen to the full mind, body, and spirit of the record – letting go of all preconceived notions of what Tori Amos is about, and letting her, her piano, her collaborators, and the masters who originally wrote their soul into their work, all come together to weave together a perfect web of some of the greatest moving pieces in classical music history with a song cycle told through the words, mind, and voice of one of today’s most respected women in the music industry.
Night of Hunters will then be understood and able to “Carry” a beautiful torch of it’s own when sitting next to Tori Amos’ vast, eclectic and stunning wall of work.