Album Review: Julia Holter - Aviary | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Album Review: Julia Holter – Aviary

Aviary, the latest effort from musical artisan Julia Holter, is as gorgeous as it is challenging, Redbrick Music Writer Alexander Brooks details

For her fourth album, Have You in My Wilderness, LA composer and musician Julia Holter constrained her more experimental tendencies, composing songs that had more traditional song structures, and fit into a more pop framework, earning her widespread critical acclaim and substantially raising her profile. From the first moment of Aviary, her new album, it is evident that any constraints have been lifted—opener ‘Turn the Light On’ is a cacophony of harp, discordant violins, and clattering drums. Above it all is Holter herself, her voice breaking and cracking. It is immediately clear that Aviary is a very different listen to Wilderness—and significantly more challenging.

Aviary is Holter’s most experimental album to date, and by far her longest
Holter is a uniquely conceptual artist—previous works have been inspired by Hippolytus, French art films, and the musicals Gigi and Cabaret. Aviary is no exception, with songs referencing Dante, quoting Sappho, and being inspired by events such as St. Vitus’ Dance, a phenomenon that occurred in Europe throughout the early 14th Century, where people danced erratically, potentially in groups of up to a thousand at a time, for hours, days, or weeks at a time, until they collapsed from exhaustion. As such, it is easy to see why Aviary garnered a reputation for being difficult immediately after its release.

Aviary is Holter’s most experimental album to date, and by far her longest—it runs to an hour and a half, and the majority of the songs exceed five minutes. The influences on this album are unique, with Holter and her band taking auditory cues from avant-garde jazz, Medieval choral chants, and modern classical. And the album does have its difficult moments—the four minutes of bagpipes that open ‘Everyday is an Emergency’ is particularly challenging to listen to. However, the next four minutes of the song are tranquil—Holter’s piano crystalline and delicate, her vocals hushed and whispered as synths hauntingly drone quietly in the background.

The duality of this song is reflected throughout the entirety of Aviary, however. Take ‘Chaitius’, for example. The song opens instrumentally, with lush strings and piano accompanied by ascending vocals. After a short interlude where Holter speaks in broken English, the song transmutes into a lilting, spritely piece of jazz-inflected pop. ‘Voce Simul’ starts out as delicate chamber jazz, before voices are layered on top of one another, repeating 'Voce', in a polyphony inspired by Medieval chants. Each song on this album is changeable, never static, and consistently surprising.

Each song on this album is changeable, never static, and consistently surprising
However, despite the inherently experimental and sometimes challenging nature of Aviary, there are sometimes moments of pure beauty. ‘I Shall Love 2’ begins as a gentle piece of ambient pop, before ending in a crescendo where vocals are layered upon each other, all singing, euphorically: ‘I shall love!’. ‘In Garden’s Muteness’ is gentle, tender, and achingly beautiful, with Holter’s vocals, drenched in reverb, backed by serene piano. ‘Underneath the Moon’ is one of the most straightforward moments of the album, despite the complex interplay of Holter and her band’s
instruments and the dizzyingly complex drum patterns that underpin the song; it is also one of the album’s most joyous moments.

Similarly joyful is ‘Les Jeux to You’, which sees Holter playfully singing nonsense lyrics with total conviction, as all the instruments combine together to create one of the most propulsive moments on the album. Conversely, ‘Words I Heard’ is composed of strings layered on top of one another, with Holter’s vocals languid and impassioned as it unhurriedly reaches its climax. And closing the album is ‘Why Sad Song’, elegiac and gentle, with Holter’s vocals barely rising above a whisper and her band’s instruments muted and calm. The closing sound—a cymbal gently being brushed—is the antithesis of the crashing which opens the album.

Aviary is an overwhelming, ambitious and intense album, but it is also beautiful, tender and enchanting, with inventive and constantly surprising production. It may require significant investment on the part of the listener, but Aviary is a truly rewarding listening experience. It confirms Julia Holter to be one of the most original and innovative artists of the 21st Century— and may well be the best album of the year.

'Aviary' is available now via Domino. Tickets to see Julia Holter perform live are available here.

I am a third year BSc Biochemistry student, and I love music, film, and literature. (@alexxxbrookss)


3rd December 2018 at 7:00 am

Images from

Dicky Bahto