Julia Holter: Ekstasis

Late last year, classically-trained Los Angeles experimental songstress Julia Holter quietly released Tragedy, a dense collection of lilting, mildly unsettling drone-pop. Tragedy’s eight lengthy compositions, based on Euripides’ play “Hippolytus,” effortlessly transitioned between skewed synth-pop, ethereal drone and almost neoclassical vocal layering.

On Ekstasis, Holter manages to retain Tragedy’s complex compositional structure while allowing the songs a sense of pop-friendliness that was until now absent in her work. The results are phenomenal: Like its predecessor, Ekstasis is an enveloping, utterly fascinating album, one which exists entirely within its own self-contained aesthetic sphere.

Opening track “Marienbad” finds Holter in familiar territory, coupling elaborate layers of hymn-like vocal lines with a meandering harpsichord. Halfway through the song, however, steady 4/4 beat emerges, leading the song into sonic territory equally indebted to Steve Reich and UK house music. That’s right, on Ekstasis, Holter gets groovy, a move that’s pleasantly surprising considering the often-rigid nature of her more cerebral earlier work.

The rest of the album veers between heart-achingly gorgeous vocal drone pieces (like the Julianna Barwick-evoking “Boy In The Moon”) and more pop-friendly fare, with tracks like “Moni Mon Ami” and “In The Same Room” pairing Holter’s flexible voice with deceptively simple melodies.

Though the transition from avant-garde to pop-friendly is a common one recently, few artists do so with the grace shown by Holter on Ekstasis. Her success lies in creating a more accessible sound without sacrificing any of the inscrutable complexity that made her earlier work so delightfully compelling, and that is an outstanding accomplishment indeed.