Keep Shelly in Athens likely will never become huge global sensations because their music isn’t made for the massive electronic / EDM festivals nor the trendy, beat-thumping nightclubs. Their downbeat, trip-hop approach is instead best heard in dark, intimate places, such as the secluded underground clubs of Berlin and London or even one’s bedroom. Only in such settings can one truly experience the totality of what enigmatic producer extraordinaire RPR and Australian singer and poet Jessica Bell have created, such as the modern Greek tragedy they have written on their striking new album, Philokalia.
The journey begins with the surreal “Leave In Silence”. RPR’s minimalist production work creates a soundscape that simultaneously feels like one is underwater yet being suspended in the Garden of the Hesperides. Bell’s soothing vocals, meanwhile, introduce us to our hero, telling him to move on and “don’t be sorry” for leaving. Out into the eerie world he enters on the dark and eerie “Marionette”. Echoing a subdued, electronic version of Chelsea Wolfe, the duo take us to Hades where Bell cruelly hollers at the tormentors that “I am not Joan of Arc”. In addition, she makes it clear our hero is not one to be played nor a follower, but instead he will do as he pleases. The aggressive tone and forward lyrics turn the track into an unexpected political, protest number.
“Game Over (Daniel’s Scene)” introduces us to title character. Bell’s vocal passages are weaved into RPR’s ethereal, downtempo instrumentation that is lush and sensual. The song is foreboding and even sinister with the inclusion of strings intensifying the drama. Our hero has fallen into despair of the underworld.
“I’m a moron.
In this strife.
We come to life.
Come to life!”
Light, though, shines through on the vibrant “Seattle”. RPR reels us in with a hypnotic synth hook and heart-racing keys while subtly adding beats and rhythms to heighten the song’s dazzling nature. Bell’s vocals also taken on a sunnier radiance. “Take me home / Take me to your secret place”, she says lustfully to the person who has freed her (or is Daniel?). Together, the two craft a number that rivals the great synth-pop ballads of the ’80s. Darkness and loneliness return on “Philokalia”, which commences with a languid tone before slowly turning into a hypnotic, ambient track. RPR once again unveils his masterful ability to make the subtle sublime through tempo and textural changes.
Bell, meanwhile, steals the show on “We Want More”, as she transforms into Kate Bush. The song sounds like the enemy or the gods have returned to take back what they believe is theirs. As RPR darkens the skies with his stark production, Bell unleashes a torrent of descriptive lyrics that describes the plight of the world and our hero.
“Let’s mute the rain
Til we find the sounds we can feel
These lonely words.
Don’t lose the pain
Because it’s the only thing we can use
To really see.
Where are our hearts are crying and bleeding out
And the hope will fall away.”
The plot reaches its apex on the convulsion-inducing and wonderful “Dark Light”, which takes us into the absolute darkest regions of Daniel’s mind. RPR sets the tone with his heavy, brooding soundscape. It is like the arrival of a fierce storm, and the song’s sky is occasionally brightened by saxophone bursts. Bell’s vocals, meanwhile, are edgy but lush, but this time she describes the powerlessness of our protagonist. His mind is controlled by someone else and with no escape to be found.
Not all hope is lost, however, as duo give us a reason to “Believe” on the album’s finale. The arrangements and mood-swaying vibe are akin to the dreamy and relaxing soundscapes of Tycho, but a slight dark hum percolates beneath the surface. Just as Bell convinces us that Daniel is indeed “The One”, RPR rips the rug from under us and turns the song into a delirious number. We’re left wondering if our hero has survived or has succumbed to the same fate as Medea or Hippolytus.
The end, though, is nowhere near for Keep Shelly in Athens. There are few artists within any genre who are able to make the mythical modern and the contemporary classic. Philokalia is that rare feat.
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