Violinist Sarah Neufeld released her solo debut three years ago, and fans of her work with Arcade Fire recognized the dramatic scope of Hero Brother. She followed that with the colossal collaborative LP Never were the way she was, an album on which she and saxophonist Colin Stetson carved out eerily beautiful landscapes. On The Ridge, her sophomore solo release, Neufeld shows impressive growth, taking her already strong compositions and incorporating new wrinkles learned on that album to crack her pieces further open.
The essentiality of Neufeld’s voice provides a key difference between her debut and The Ridge. Much like the way Stetson uses his voice as an instrument to accompany his deep-breathing sax, Neufeld’s often wordless tones flit and float, evoking a soaring bird at times, a sleek yet dangerous orca at others, and a haunting spectral entity of no shape elsewhere. There’s a mythic quality to this wordlessness, an ability to convey a shapeshifting depth and beauty that no language could quite elucidate. When she does add lyrics, they’re grand if a little vague, allowing you to fill in some details of the epic journey.
“I know the music is dark and weird sometimes,” Neufeld told The Wall Street Journal. “But I found this musical world in my head that I wanted to enjoy and spend time with and write around.” That weird darkness drives tracks like the cloud-haunted “A Long Awaited Scar” and the woozy “The Glow”. With The Ridge, Neufeld has created the soundtrack to a deep fantasy novel that doesn’t yet exist, in which flocks of griffins soar over the desert landscape and a lone wanderer scrabbles her way to an oasis.
That said, that msytic otherness can be frustrating when stretched overlong without a compelling change. The five-minute “From Our Animal” plays out in arcs of violin, as if waiting for something to explode. Nothing does. By incorporating drums, synth, and her voice throughout the rest of the album, these long moments play out as anti-climactic, though if presented without that context they’d likely feel plenty dramatic.
Those drums throughout the rest of the album are provided by Neufeld’s Arcade Fire bandmate, Jeremy Gara. His heartbeat thud drives the immaculate “Chase the Bright and Burning”, the tom beat peppered with subtle wooden smacks and the occasional burnished cymbal splash. Stetson makes a few appearances as well, only here decidedly playing second fiddle to the name on the cover. He contributes the lyricon, a little-known synth controlled by the mouth.
They add some color to Neufeld’s composition, never overpowering her violin, which remains the centerpiece despite the additions. The opening title track layers and churns, Neufeld ceaselessly sawing on the strings. The popping, plucked intro to “The Glow”, acts as a stark counterpoint to the lush swoons of “They All Came Down”, aided by the electronic percussion.
Though the album feels very cinematic, its structure isn’t as taut as that might imply. The arc of The Ridge stretches and lingers, closing on the rolling fog of “When the Light Comes In”. It’d be thrilling to hear Neufeld compose a score that emulated this new fusion, yet paced in more easily traceable narrative arcs. In the meantime, this intriguing album more than suffices.
Essential Tracks: “Chase the Bright and Burning”, “The Glow”