Leila Abdul-Rauf – Phantasiai Review

Can you hear that distant noise? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. It’s… a modulated trumpet. Wow. Why did you think that was a bird? To be fair, “modulated trumpet” isn’t exactly a phrase I – or anyone around here, for that matter – use often, so I can see why it wasn’t your first guess. But it’s nevertheless the shining star of Phantasiai, the fourth full-length release of ambient music from California’s Leila Abdul-Rauf. Armed with little more than vocal melodies, a glockenspiel, and the aforementioned trumpet, Abdul-Rauf is primed to create unsettling atmospheres and cryptic journeys. How well does the listener fare in these hazy crossroads?

Phantasiai is split into two broad songs, divided into four tracks each. Each is just removed enough from its parent movement to stand alone should the need arise, but is similar enough that it’s easy to think of the album as an expression of two distinct ideas or stories, explored in full over the course of just under forty minutes. The instruments are heavily laden with effects: reverb, distortion, modulation turn simple hits on the glockenspiel into piercing, shaking echoes that carry melodies that tremble with unease, and give the trumpet a range comparable to layered synths. As a result, despite the comparatively few instruments brought on for this project, Phantasiai is adept at building drawling, unsettling atmospheres. “Distortions in Phantasy III: Suspension” is the first track of the album to incorporate vocals in the mix, combining distant ringing bells with the low trumpet drone and succeeding in creating a dismal arena for the music to build in, one that bleeds into “Distortions in Phantasy IV: Disembodiment” to build on the chill and unease. In these, the mission statement for the album is at its clearest: dark, ambient impressions of pain, loss, or monotony, told as a story open for interpretation.

Tracks like these two, featuring slow builds to repeating themes, are the high points of the album, but it’s hard not to feel as though Fantasiai gets caught up in the moment and meanders about. Of course, this is ambient music, so a certain amount of meandering is expected, but when “The I Emerges” kicks off with “Rebirth,” it’s surprising how little happens. There’s plenty of ominous drone, the trumpet sings out a mournful melody, and then it all sort of disintegrates together in an overly-long grumble of gloom and woe that, while enjoyable enough in the moment, is forgotten almost as soon as it ends. I do find it a bit difficult to explain the album nuances that lead to me finding some tracks interesting and others forgettable, but the album spends so much time weaving me in and out of the two sides that it quickly becomes difficult to keep track of which parts I liked and which parts I didn’t.

So Phantasiai winds up feeling less like eight tracks stemming from two movements to form one album and more like a single shapeless entity that is comfortable in its arena and unwilling to stray too far from its initial idea. Take closer “The I Emerges IV: Cell” – the track innovates by incorporating a piano to lend the moment a sense of wry drudgery, which fits the whole “cell” idea nicely. The problem is that it does the same thing, over and over again, for the full five-minute track, which winds up feeling less-than-inspired as a closer. I’m hardly expecting excitement from the style, but I do feel as though Abdul-Rauf is trying to tell a story that gets caught up in its own momentum more often than not across Phantasiai. The whole shifts and spins on itself constantly, flitting between fascinating, meandering, enjoyable, and forgettable in a way that makes it difficult to properly judge.

At times I enjoy it, and at times I don’t. What Leila Abdul-Rauf has built with Phantasiai is an immersive storytelling experience, but, for me, it lacks impact. The memorability factor that makes me want to return to the album and dig deeper into the gloom is missing from Phantasiai, which makes it a little hard to recommend. I’ve never disliked a run through the album – indeed, I’m impressed at how much feeling Abdul-Rauf is able to glean from a comparatively simple array of instruments – but I fear the style of Phantasiai is one that is simply not for me.

Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Cyclic Law
Websites: leilaabdulrauf.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/leilaabdulrauf
Releases Worldwide: July 16th, 2021

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