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Circles Of Upper And Lower Hell
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  • Circles of Upper and Lower Hell seems like an expanded director's cut version of Upper Hell, Ela Orleans' 2015 full-length produced by trip-hop mainstay Howie B. That album had much more of a polished electro-pop sheen than Orleans' prior releases, and it didn't quite fit her style. Circles is more sprawling and experimental, and quite simply, it feels much more like an Ela Orleans album. Her sound has evolved greatly since her earliest solo releases dating back to the late 2000s; gone are the grainy loops and spaghetti Western guitars. There's still somewhat of a claustrophobic feel to her work, and it remains eerie and haunted, but there's a greatly expanded scope here. A few of the tracks on Circles actually appeared on Upper Hell, but their retitled, altered versions are far more subtle and intriguing. Upper Hell's "The Sky and the Ghost" sounded confusing as a shiny dance-pop number, but here, as "Ghosts and Whispers," the beat is less up-front and there are loads of effects obscuring and altering the vocals. It just sounds more at home this way. The track includes a lot of whispered vocals, which is a common occurrence throughout the album. While there's a decent number of proper songs here, plenty more of the pieces treat vocals as an additional instrument or textural element. Many of the tracks are only around a minute or two in length, giving the album a soundtrack-like feel. Other tracks experiment with different rhythmic elements and musical combinations. "Charon" buries a samba piano melody and plucked strings under turntable scratching, whispers, and plenty of trippy delay. "Hands in Dark" (which bears no resemblance to Dark Day's minimal synth classic "Hands in the Dark") has a jaunty beat skipping over ghostly vocals and layers of synths, some of which almost sound like chirping crickets. Tracks like "Beatrice" bury early-'90s dance beats under blankets of gloomy keyboards. At 72 minutes, the album is vast and potentially overwhelming, but it's a thorough realization of Orleans' vision, and it's easily one of her most accomplished albums yet. ~ Paul Simpson
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