While listening to Copal’s debut album, Into the Shadow Garden, the one notion I couldn’t shake was that this band begs to be seen live. The music is free-flowing and takes its time to develop, and the dynamic between musicians is such that being confined to a recording doesn’t seem like it properly does their particular brand of music enough justice. There’s enough space here that seeing the quintet open their compositions up in the live setting is really how Copal’s music should be heard.
From the opening track of “Roots,” it becomes clear that this music, a haunting mix of Middle Eastern melody and percussion over straightforward Western drum and bass, is above all an outlet for long-form group improvisation. Over the course of about nine minutes, the piece weaves through a number of different textures, opening with a hard beat that gives way to a much gentler middle section before building back up to its conclusion. Lead violinist/occasional vocalist Hannah Thiem introduces a simple repeating melody, soon joined by cello players Isabel Castellvi and Robin Ryczek in harmony. Engin Gunaydin adds colorful flares around the notes with his darbuka, while Chris Brown (bass) and Karl Grohmann (drum kit) provide a solid foundation below it all. After a few minutes, the band starts to flow away from the initial melody: Thiem’s violin steps out of the spotlight for a moment, weaving itself around a cello in improvised counterpoint, eventually driving the song to its conclusion.
The majority of Shadow Garden is like this. Copal take their time getting from A to B. Of the album’s six songs, three of them approach eight minutes in length, and the listener ought to prepare himself for this. On a first listen, the music may sound same-y and slow, but Shadow Garden absolutely rewards repeated listens. The interplay between musicians is fascinating, and the sheer level of musicality here makes the album worth revisiting. The percussion is impeccably tight, and the string players manipulate their tone throughout the work, particularly Thiem, who seems to be able to fill out or thin her violin’s sound as a song demands it. Cellos gliss lazily from one note to the other, and Thiem and Brown add small touches of psychedelic synth to the empty spaces. This album is masterfully produced; even the tiniest details coming through as they need to. Brown’s bass is rich and deep, and there’s a real sense of space when you listen to Copal, and it’s not a huge stretch of imagination to picture the band’s positioning in the studio.
Vocal work is basically a non-factor in this album: Thiem occasionally takes to the microphone, but for all intents and purposes, Shadow Garden is an instrumental album. “Velvet” features the most extensive vocal work, though, complete with verse and chorus. Her voice is mixed such that the lyrics seem less important than the sentiment and sound produced, however, often turned down to the level of the other instruments, becoming more a part of the ensemble than a conveyor of lyrics. “Ether” features spoken German, and more forcefully draws the listener’s attention to Thiem’s voice than the rest of the album.
Into the Shadow Garden is a relatively short work, at just over 35 minutes, but every one of those minutes count. Listening to this album is more work than others at twice the length, but the satisfaction at finding a new sound to latch onto is one not often found. Unfortunately, all of these touches are still simply an attempt to convey the live experience on a digital file. Copal pride themselves on fully unique live shows, and part of the band’s appeal surely comes from a given performance being unique to that specific time and space. It may seem unfair to chide a band’s album for not being as good as they are live, but really, the only problem with Shadow Garden is that it has to exist in musical stasis.