ALBUM REVIEW: Susanna and Ensemble neoN “The Forrester”

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Norwegian vocalist Susanna Karolina Wallumrod has roamed from singer-songwriting solo work to electro-pop collaborations. She’s teamed up with musicians, conductors, and arrangers from different genres to form Susanna and Ensemble neoN. Ensemble neoN is known for their flexible and experimental work, blending art forms, and partnering with visual and installation artists. The sound they have created with Susanna is hard to define, somewhere between classic, pop, and chant. It’s breathtaking, but easy to fall into, conjuring otherworldly spaces to accompany Susanna’s gorgeous, inviting vocals.

The first track is “The Forrester I, II, and III,” actually three songs in one and totaling fifteen minutes. “The Forrester I” very minimalist, in all aspects – mellow, minimal melody, minimal words repeated in different ways, minimal build and movement between parts. I find this an interesting choice for the opening song. There’s a bit of Bjork here, but, surprisingly, given Susanna’s pop background, it’s the Bjork of “Anchor Song”, not “Play Dead”. It’s more beautiful and less powerful in this case, though. Susanna’s voice is sweet and lovely, reaching some truly melancholy high notes.

The music does pick up a bit here and there with guitar and reverb in “The Forrester II”, but it’s a little bit boring. The music is close to creating a great atmosphere – it succeeds at some parts of the song with wind instruments and violin doing some world building – but fails to make enough of an impact a lot of the time. It has a score-like quality. I imagine if they pushed it just a little bit more in terms of melody and harmony it could inspire brilliant visuals instead of waning into something soft and sad and somehow less natural.

“The Forester III” has lyrics that push the storytelling into a more navigable space. “We can hear our children call,” Susanna cries, “Forest leaves us cold.” There’s still that melancholy that’s so easy for quieter, minimal music to fall into, but it feels less confessional and more actually personal.

Susanna sounds great on “Hangout” with its easy to follow melody and far more casual lyrics than “The Forester”. “Why can’t you hang out with me a little longer?” She pleads with someone unknown to us. The music also seems to take most of its direction from her vocals. This puts the importance of the song in the words, which is intriguing for a fairly classical sounding piece. The logic is simple – “When you’re not here / I wish you were here . . . Breathing the same air,” but the effect is very sympathetic. Though we don’t know who Susanna is singing to, it doesn’t really matter. That loneliness, that longing is palpable to us as human beings, something we can understand without getting at the complications or details.

When I say cross-genre, I mean it. The piece “Oh, I am Stuck” combines the group’s classical and jazz elements with a pop piano and vocal melody. Susanna seems more comfortable singing on this track. I’m not sure if I like that better, but I think it provides a necessary juxtaposition to the softer sounds on the rest of the album (the dreamy, wistful “Intruder” and the unexpectedly upbeat “Lonely Heart”).

This record is definitely worth a listen if you can get into a space that combines human fragility and daydreams of dark, enigmatic woods. Listen to “Intruder” by Susanna and Ensemble neoN below:

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