At times sacred, elsewhere profane, it’d be cliché to call Alchemic Heart a study in contrasts. But then again, that’s pretty much precisely what it is. For starters, the disc is split right at the midpoint. The first track, “Sea,” clocks in at 24 minutes and some change. Likewise, so is the second (and last) cut, “Land.” It’s a tidy demarcation, to be sure, as so much is happening at any given grain that more macro notions like form and gestalt would inevitably be lost without multiple listens and some studious note-taking. Save for duration and single syllable titles though, that’s about it with regard to samesies. Like any good high school contrast prompt, it’s all in the dichotomy: “one if by land, and two if by sea,” Longfellow once wrote.
Based in Osaka, Japan, this self-professed “brutalist orchestra” was already, itself, a weirdly bifurcated entity before Jarboe, Merzbow and some Boredoms showed up to help record the new one. Fussy opus Sppears made that abundantly clear in 2009 to anyone who took a chance on an über-modern Japanese pit orchestra with an admittedly campy name. But if alchemy is all about transforming and heart is just another word for determination, then this Vampillia disc has to be considered a modest success — gold or not, win or lose.
Again, it’s all about the partition. In “Sea,” classically beautiful string and piano sonorities turn into sinister swathes of distortion almost on a dime. Similarly, Jarboe’s chesty alto recitations (“I breathe in the darkness / I breathe in the fear”), quickly acquiesce to her trademark coloratura jabberwocky. To wit, it’s some of her finest work since that 2008 collaboration with Justin K. Broadrick — heady, a bit sexy and square on the fucking nose.
“Land” is perhaps slightly less stratified in texture, but it too pays little mind to subtly and gradient. Yet, because it starts bigger, “Land” runs out of real estate faster than “Sea.” Thresholds being what they are, we’re thus left holding a louder total sound for a longer composite time. And while that’s not necessarily an inherently bad thing, it’s not exactly sound business practice for Alchemic Heart. Too many lace-meets-leather records skimp on the frilly stuff, much to the detriment of the leather itself. After all, all-leather, all-the-time can quickly become a fetish. And as far as this critic can tell at least, Vampillia is much too pretty for that.