‘With such dramatic beauty in every aspect, it’s near impossible to not drown in the evocative atmosphere Marjana creates.’
Intro to Marjana Semkina
For the vast majority of you, it is unlikely that the name Marjana Semkina will mean much to you. However, for a select few it may very well seem familiar. Leading the way with her creative lyricism and theatrical musicality as vocalist and songwriter for Russian duo Iamthemorning, each release in that guise – one which has given us no less than six albums – captivates at every turn. Diverse and unpredictable, yet completely evocative there is something truly special about their music. But now it has become even more so in the form of Marjana’s debut solo album ‘Sleepwalking’. Perfectly expanding on the evolving nature of Iamthemorning, it’s a musical journey that’s like nothing that has been before. One moment it’s folk. The next it’s dramatic. And the next it overwhelms you. As a package of 11 tracks, it’s an utterly stunning, 45-minute masterpiece. However, if don’t think can dedicate that amount of time – and I really mean dedicate, let ‘Mermaid Song’ be the track to convince you that you should.
Instantly setting the atmosphere for this track which is the penultimate one on Sleepwalking, stirring strings sing to us like a siren rising from the depths of the ocean. Otherworldy-edged and filled with folk harmonies, the wonderous combination of mixed classical strings generates a sensation that’s evocative, and as captivating as can be. Given that the same can be said for the rest of the album, this is no surprise. However, with such definition brought to every vibrato-infused bow, it really is like you can hear – and if you close your eyes truly imagine – the players pouring their soul into the music they have been given. To say the scene is set really doesn’t begin to cover it.
Having delivered such moving musicality in the introduction, on arriving at the opening lyrics the accompanying elements become softer and much less dominating, reflecting the words themselves. Replaced by the delicacy of pizzicato motifs, the absence of deep, touching harmonies enables us to focus fully on the intrigue-filled vocals that we have come to expect. Appropriately breath-edge, yet perfectly formed, each word is experienced completely and pushes us to the next with ease. Equally, with variations of the phrase ‘hold your breath, you’re underwater/don’t think of drowning’ being painted as wonderfully as an artist painting a canvas, we find comfort that all will be ok. Well, at least for now.
With the emphasis on subtlety during the initial lyrics, on continuing through the earlier influences begin to re-emerge and blend seamlessly with the existing sound. Contrasting beautifully with the aforementioned motifs, each sustained line feeds off its predecessor and in doing so generates unpredictably appearing, perfectly wave-like harmonies. Lapping our ears as they do, it really is the most comforting, drift-inducing sound. However, in an equally tide-like manner, the lyricism is on the turn and in switching to deliver the line ‘Her lungs are filling with water’ you realise that the track is heading somewhere less delicate and much darker.
Wonderfully reflecting the hinted change in mood, the lightness brought by the strings before is replaced by piano that’s full of soon to be realised anticipation. Providing bass emphasis to the melodic content above, a great sense of depth is generated within what is actually an incredibly sparse accompaniment. In the sparseness though, there is beauty. A real abundance of it and truly supporting the increasingly ethereal pitches in Marjana’s vocals, the whole listening experience is endlessly image-generating. Taking this further, in initially accenting the existing bass notes with pizzicato strings and later transforming them back into dominant, sustained phrases, the true juxtaposition of light and darkness is realised. Realised in the most cinematic of ways.
Musically circling around us, it is clear that a true blossoming of sound is on the horizon and combining everything that has been, it feels inevitable that a climax will soon to be reached. Almost too much to cope with, it is like we are being sucked into a watery vortex. A whirlpool if you will. And as we are, we are told once more to ‘hold [our] breath and [not] think of drowning.’ I mean honestly, with such dramatic beauty in every aspect, it’s near impossible to not drown in the evocative atmosphere that Marjana insists on creating. Pushing and pushing with every phrase, it grows, like the best film soundtracks, with impassioned intensity until it reaches something most unexpected: Silence.
Delivering drama that’s so incredibly effective that, ironically, it has to be heard, Marjana says so much in the near two seconds of silence. Maybe it’s because it is completely out of the blue, especially with the mid-phrase breakpoint, but set in this way it encourages us to take a deep breath. And trust me you need a very deep one to prepare you for what is to follow. Sure the initial rebirth of sound may not feel much different from where we just were, but wait for almost the same length as that silence and you will realise just how different it truly is. Yes there are evocative strings. Yes there are dominating piano motifs. But the combination here means the previously contained orchestral influences now truly shine.
Transforming into momentum-filled power, any hint of the gentle and comforting sounds we experienced earlier are completely cast aside. Heavy cross-rhythmical repeating phrases lead the way. Moving counter-melodies join. As do distant drums. This isn’t a climax, this is something so much bigger and like everything else, you can’t stop the atmosphere conjuring up the clearest of imagery. It is indeed like that siren has risen from the depths and is about to burst through the roaring ocean. And with the help of Marjana’s increasingly impressive vocal, it does exactly that. Don’t get me wrong, throughout the track Marjana’s vocal has been sublime, faultless, evocative, stirring – in fact, use any favourable description you like – but here, it is powerful and dominating.
Much like the music which sits underneath, the delicacy offered by soft, breath-infused phrases is long gone. This is all about force. This is where the sound has been heading and with Marjana projecting over the torrent of the instrumental elements, it quickly becomes true testament to the vocal prowess she has. Initially soaring over the boundary-destroying drama, the most wonderful inflections appear and somehow draw our attention away from the rhythmical momentum. Then, like the siren thrashing against the tide, hectic, war-like drums join the imposing soundscape which she is competing with. And then, just when you think there can be no more, Marjana’s vocals resurge one final, overwhelming time before diving back into the depths of where we began. Finally, we can breathe.