Classic Music Review: The Bells of 1 2 by Sol Seppy

2006-4-9-ent_solseppy

Sophie Michalitsianos is an amazing woman in many ways, but trying to keep track of her is almost a full-time job.

After she released The Bells of 1 2 in 2006, she became an NPR darling like Neko Case and her future looked pretty rosy. Then she vanished. The Internet was full of inquiries, stories of sightings, but the trails always seemed to go cold. I figured she pulled a Garbo or J. D. Salinger kind of thing and left her in peace. Out of the blue, she showed up in 2012 to release a 3-song EP, The Bird Calls, and Its Song Awakens the Air, and I Call. This event also proved to be ephemeral, for almost as soon as it appeared, it disappeared from the virtual shelves of online retailers. I was fortunate enough to download a copy before it vanished, and was absolutely knocked out by the quality of composition and the sheer beauty of the arrangements. After leaving a brief message about the EP on her Facebook page on July 11, 2012, she vanished again.

Sophie re-emerged over a year later and explained her latest disappearance on her Facebook page. Life is so very, very unfair:

Ten months ago, just
as we were moving house and I was to do two more songs and then let the record go
my husband was flown away to a hospital where he was diagnosed with accute myeloid lukemia. I came to where he went and have been there ever since, in a small appartment near by the hospital.
a pretty lonely journey in someways as i did not have too much in way of family support but unseen support was very much there and held everything together when i couldn’t.
I have not been able to do anything thus far except try and stay sane and some kind of touchstone for my husband, and be also
a good mama for my little baby . I can write you all this now because my he
pulled through, inspite of being eventually put on life support = he is now
alive, and lukemia free. he is a very amazing and inspiring man. i do not think i could have done what he did. and last that long, being stuck with needles and drugs everyday for ten months solid. without much complaint, and without being able to see me as much as we wished.
my journey was also pretty rough.
it required i use and practice every single word
of every one of the songs you know and don’t yet.
also, there is something else i have not really been able to say
and that is that i was stuck in a record deal i could not get out of.
so i could not release anything whilst this deal was in place.
this did not stop me making stuff, i just couldn’t put it out. if i just gave it to everyone as i do secretly wish i could do,
then i would lose the chance of being able to finance anymore music
so i had to wait . I tried to get out of it of course but they did not want to let me go.
anyway its over now.
i am free.
and my husband is better.
and all i have to do now, is find a garage
or a shed
to drag my equipment into ( oh rent free as well )
and then i can
record.
i am so tired.
but am so grateful. i saw the stars out in the night sky
yesterday for the first time in ten months
xxxx

She has not posted since October 2013, and though I don’t pray, I hope with all my heart that everything is alright. Sophie is not only an extraordinarily talented woman but one of the gentlest souls you will ever encounter through music. The Bells of 1 2 is a lovely record, a modern, tone-poem version of Blake’s Songs of Innocence built around Sophie’s personal spiritual journey. The woman who renamed herself Sol Seppy for the listening public created, produced and played or programmed every sound you hear, but beneath all the music is a woman who seems sincere, modest and nonjudgmental. It is tragic that life circumstances and the nature of the music business have prevented her from continuing to fulfill her calling as an artist.

From the start you learn that The Bells of 1 2 is an intensely evocative album, a wonderful example of the ability of music to call up memories and imagery. Whenever I hear the opening passage of “1 2” with its repeated single piano note enhanced by the addition of a higher-pitched motif on the keyboard, I envision a porcelain ballerina in fifth position starting to spin on the base of a music box, or a young girl dressed in her Sunday best tentatively beginning the recital and gaining confidence as she goes. The magical, whirling music continues, enhanced by deep cello, then Sophie begins singing over steady acoustic guitar chords supplemented by undistorted electric guitar fills. Her voice is soft and shy as she sings:

The power of angels
You left at my door
I wrapped it up in tinfoil
And hastened away towards hills

Begging, “someone give me a sign”
But my heart wrapped in silver
Could cry any louder

In the third passage, she sings at a higher pitch further back in the sound field, and her voice softly wraps around the “silver hearts” containing her vision as if she is swaddling a baby. The passage fades, then the original motif returns to delight us again. The unity of the composition is admirable, but the vulnerability Sophie displays is even more impressive.

“Human” is a song based on the belief that our true home lies on the spiritual planes beyond the physical plane. Having grown up in California, I am both familiar and comfortable with what people refer to as “New Age” beliefs, and while I find many of them hokey, I do believe there is something eternal about the soul. Wishful thinking perhaps, but the belief that Sophie expresses in this song is not only harmless, but sings to our better nature:

Bring forth the beauty of your heart
This undying love is who you are

The undying love is not eros (though I firmly believe that eros is one path to get to higher consciousness), but the unconditional love The Greeks called agape. The piece begins with halting piano, and Sophie adopts that halting approach in her vocal. She does not bother to disguise an accent that came from years spent living in Australia and England, something I find charming and certainly in defiance of the long-standing habit of non-American singers to try to sound as American as possible. Keeping her natural pronunciation and diction also adds to the credibility of the piece, making it more accessible and less New Age. It’s still an intensely beautiful and dreamy piece that calls up images of gently glowing skies full of stars, the place where humanity has always looked for hopeful signs.

The most popular single from the album was “Come Running,” and it is certainly more market-friendly than some of the other compositions, despite the lack of a hook-laden chorus. However, simply because something strikes a chord with the listening public doesn’t mean that it can’t be art. Sophie’s voice in the verses sounds a bit earthier and sexier than in most of the other songs, and the steady drums and repeated guitar motif help build erotic tension. That said, Sophie is very consistent with her message throughout The Bells of 1 2, and like the other songs on the album, this is more about spiritual growth than physical contact:

And it’s time to unveil those beautiful eyes
There’s a whole lot more than you realize
There’s a shift going on that you feel inside
And it’s time to open you into the light
Can you see the love you are?
It burns inside so bright
Can you see the love you are?

The synthesizer dominates the background music during the bridges, but what I really love is the way she double-tracks and triple-tracks her vocal to give it more character and diversity. Sophie does have more of a conventional religious bent than I do, but I can still appreciate the beauty of one passage in this song that calls up the ancient belief of “the father in the sky.” Sophie’s words here are certainly richer than The Beatles’ mathematical formula, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

And you’re looking on up to your home in the stars
Remembering what it’s like to be safe and warm in your daddy’s arms
And now it’s you who can enfold your wings ’round a broken one
And it’s you who needs your love
More than anyone

If only more people would spontaneously enfold their wings ’round a broken one, this world would be a happy place.

“Move” opens as a song of dissonant, screaming cacophony, a surprising choice for the album’s first single. Sophie’s distorted voice sounds like the voice of conscience trying to break through the noise of self-deprecation that blocks her “the power to change everything.” During the dark opening passage, the anguish is palpable; as the music shifts to a quiet shuffle, she clarifies the source of her frustration:

Come to me sometime
I’ve been waiting for a long, long time
Give me some of your shine, shine
Maybe for all mine

I need you now tonight
I need you now tonight
Oh tonight

We’re not sure if she yearns for physical closeness or spiritual unity, but the feeling that she’s “’bout to miss everything” returns, along with a shift back to the darker music. The relative heaviness of the piece adds diversity to the mix, but as an individual track, “Move” is not one of my favorites. It’s followed by “Gold,” a short piece with an eerie feel and even more elusive lyrics. It’s more of a fragment, both of composition and thought, but it does succeed in evoking a sense of mystery and doubt.

Over a background that sounds like rain muffled by walls, “Injoy” opens with a slow, subdued piano passage that moves slightly uptempo when Sophie begins to sing. The tone of her voice is one of gentle ecstasy, as if she is immersed in a warm bath, or has awoken from a sweet dream. The neologism “Injoy” is meant to express immersion in a state of joy, and the last set of couplets describe a fusion with nature and a commingling of body and spirit:

I’m injoy as the morning spirals open
And the clouds melt away into water

And I am come to you
And I am one with you

Sophie’s voice on these lines is quite pretty, the sound of childlike ecstasy in a format adults can understand.

The centerpiece of the album is “Slo Fuzz,” the last single to be released from the album. An ode to spiritual and perceptual blindness ironically set to a sexy background of throbbing, distorted bass, it is both her most honest expression of the challenges facing the truth-seeker and one of the greatest slow dance numbers I’ve ever heard. My partner and I will often slow dance to this song in the nude after a good, long fuck and a cigarette, and while that may not sound very spiritual to you, it’s fucking heaven to me. The six-minute plus length allows for intense closeness and the sheer beauty of the inspiring melody makes us both feel like we’re floating as one. Ahh!

Sophie’s original intent had nothing to do with eros, but the struggle to achieve agape. In the first verse, she admits her inability to rid herself of human pettiness:

I wish i could say the same of myself, that i’m in perfect harmony.
That i do not use the sword of my tongue to lash out at the enemy.
That i do not fear the light.
That i do not stray from Love as my guide.
That i’m at peace inside.
And all the pieces are fine – they dance and sing in unity.
A dum dum dum dee daa da deee.

The yearning she expresses in the stunningly beautiful chorus is one of liberation; the obstacle she faces is her all-too human limitations.

I wish I could fly through the sky and the moon above me.
I wish I could talk to the Gods and the birds above me.
It’s not fun to be so blind.
To be so blind.

For me, the key line comes in the last verse, where she wakes up next to her partner and has carnal desire on her mind, but finds the role of temptress limiting and inadequate:

Slo fuzz in the morning,
where i can tempt you to be my air . . .
But it’s not enough to be lovely when i feel other things i can not share.
That i can’t . . .

I would argue with Sophie that unconditional love is indeed achievable through eroticism; that eroticism can build deep unity and trust through the mutual sharing of vulnerabilities; and that it’s impossible to imagine a greater joy than the orgasm . . . but that would be beside the point. I accept her premise, respect her views (though I wish she wasn’t so hard on herself) and embrace the truth that “Slo Fuzz” is a unique and exquisite treasure, no matter what your perspective.

“Slo Fuzz” is a tough song to follow, but Sophie does the right thing by shifting to a more complex chord variation in “Love’s Boy,” a fascinating piece combining clever acoustic guitar runs with unexpected thrusts of cello and synth. The scale used in this song is quite unusual: it’s based on the Locrian mode, the only mode where the tonic triad is a diminished chord. It’s rarely used in classical music, though Bjork used it for the bass part of “Army of Me.” The diminished chords, enhanced by mesmerizing counterpoint guitar, give the song a distinct Mediterranean sense of mystery, like a night I remember in Nice when the full moon turned the sky into an ethereal blue that defied physics. This is an amazing composition, and delightful to play along with—the mode allows for all kinds of new musical discoveries.

After a very brief tinkering with electronic sound, “Farewell Your Heart” turns into a mid-tempo acoustic guitar number with a definite coffeehouse feel. A few distant hints of synthesizer cloud the soundscape during the breaks between verses, but the bulk of the song is Sophie singing over arpeggiated guitar chords, which is perfectly fine with me. The lyrics are again elusive, noted primarily for the earthy line, “Fuck me up before you fly.” Up next is the heavily electronic “Answer to the Name of,” with a motif that at first hints at “Jingle Bells,” but turns soft and quiet like a modern lullaby where the tenderness of the music calls up images of mother and baby. The verses are more conventional dream pop, but Sophie’s voice is perfect for that genre.

“Wonderland” opens with electronics and the sound of a primitive string instrument that I can’t identify. The song has a nursery rhyme, sing-songy feel to it, but the lyrics defy that mood:

I found this picture the other day
It was so amazing I hung it up
My friends said “That’s by the girl next door
She doesn’t think she’s very good at all.”
And then one day Sara came around,
“Please would you take that thing down?”
She blacked it out and then she ripped it up
And hid herself in a paper bag.

The rejection of the creative spirit is occasioned by conformity pressures to wait for the man of her dreams, for “Arthur to come through her window.” At this point Sophie loses me when Arthur turns into a spacecraft, but she stays on message in the end: “and she runs towards this unbelievable love.”

The Bells of 1 2 closes “Enter One,” which opens with a set of melancholy piano chords and an almost whispered vocal. The peaceful mood continues through the first half of the song, then suddenly Sophie’s voice becomes clear and firm, supported by deep low notes in the background. Here she expresses the essence of the journey she has chosen to take:

Welcome
Insha’Allah, insha’Allah
Enter one amazing grace is pouring down
Fear not this light
We are of this light divine
So come
We move as one
Amazing grace is pouring down
Fear not this light
We are on this light divine
Welcome
Enter one

The pattern repeats itself, giving “Enter One” and The Bells of 1 2 a memorable, triumphant ending, even with the short piano chord fade.

Although I have a definite preference for the human over the ethereal, what appeals to me most about this record is Sophie’s sincerity. In recent years, the evil side of religion has dominated the collective consciousness, from the wacko right-wing militaristic Christians in the United States and their equally sociopathic counterparts in Al Qaeda and Isis. While I do not and will never believe in something called “god,” I do believe that there is a spiritual aspect to life. I just refuse to believe that it’s about some guy with a beard up in the clouds or weird red guys poking you with pitchforks for all eternity. Sophie’s effort on The Bells of 1 2 reminds us that there are sincere people on a sincere quest for enlightenment and reunion with the life spirit. I can accept that when it is authentic, and I have no doubt that Sophie has a genuine yearning for higher consciousness.

That said, she herself remains ethereal. As I was writing this review, her Wikipedia page vanished (only the German version still exists as of this writing). It’s like the woman exists in another dimension, appearing only at random intervals.

Putting aside her troubling tendency to disappear, and whatever you think of her spiritual leanings, Sophie “Sol Seppy” Michalitsianos is a remarkable musical talent who deserves life circumstances that support her wish to express herself through her art.

I really hope everything is alright.

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