ASPIDISTRAFLY, the Singaporean duo comprising April Lee and producer Ricks Ang, return with Altar of Dreams, their first studio album in a decade.
While their last album A Little Fable introduced the world to their bucolic and wispy brand of folk song writing, Altar of Dreams sees the duo – also the founders of KITCHEN. LABEL – harness their experiences over the past decade to create a wholly new and inspired vision. In this new and third album, they drew upon a rich palette of shapes, sounds and movement: straddling between the visionary photography of Serge Lutens and Dora Maar, 80s Japanese ambient pop, musique concrète and the mournful strings of Béla Bartók.
The world in which ASPIDISTRAFLY once inhabited was foggy and awash in faded memory. A feeling of being suspended in time felt inescapable with each listen. In Altar of Dreams, the fog is clearing up. At nine songs under 35 minutes, the album possesses all the defining hallmarks of ASPIDISTRAFLY – poetic lyricism, cosmic introspection, lush strings, surrealism, tenderness and texture. But what was once seemingly inscrutable has now been explored with astounding clarity, the duo maneuvering through a space-time continuum with delicate leaps.
‘How To Find A Marblewing’, the opening track, is a heady sound collage of early internet sounds, film, anime, and chopped-and-screwed 90s J-pop. It’s a presence deeply embedded throughout the record, a method Lee describes as “a form of environmental/tape treatment”.
The compositions glimmer with sincerity, addressing all at once destruction, mystery, uncertainty, hopes and dreams. The resulting music is backed by an opulence only possible with a line-up of guest musicians. ‘The Voice of Flowers’ is stirring in its balance of flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone and piano, bolstered by a string quartet. KITCHEN. LABEL artist Haruka Nakamura features on the track alongside Kyo Ichinose (who arranged the strings for the album) and wind instrumentalist ARAKI Shin.
‘Interlude: Chrysalises and Larvae’ takes the heavy path downward, adopting its name from the 1973 surrealist odyssey The Hourglass Sanatorium. It leads into ‘Companion to Owls’, a gothic pop paean to mortality inspired by the Book of Job.
Before the namesake centrepiece of the album, another interlude arrives in ‘A Ceremonial Ode’, both of which were stirred by a series of regal Shiseido ads from the 1980s starring model Sayoko Yamaguchi. ‘Altar of Dreams’ is haunted by the lucid dreams that once provided escapism for Lee. Its tranquillity belies a simmering tension, just as how a lucid dream would offer control in the face of the unknown. “In one of them, I was floating in a vast darkness safe and secure, and then I fell into a turbulent mirage where I willingly allowed myself to be swept away further and further from reality, hoping that I would never wake up,” she says. “Needless to say I did, and ended up writing this song on one of these dead nights.”
If the title track replicates the feeling of falling deep into that spiral, ‘Silk and Satins’ is a direct analysis of the phenomenon. Warped frequencies collide with nature and television sound effects – the latter sourced from 80s Singaporean horror series Mystery – within an inter-dimensional music world. The track was made with featured artist SUGAI KEN, whose own work is an endless scroll of intoxicating found sounds.
‘Quintessence’, the sweeping closing track, distils all the elements scattered across the album into a coda that beautifully refuses to resolve. At first an exercise in guitar looping, the song was then written without a beginning and end in mind. “I’d like to think of it as poetry that’s sung,” says Lee.
In Altar of Dreams, ASPIDISTRAFLY are renewed and hopeful. They’ve emerged from a decade spent reframing the world they see through vivid dreams and memories. Now, it’s all yours to experience.