Tuesday, 23 August 2011

CD Review: Night of Hunters (2011) by Tori Amos

Although her apparently self-imposed biannual schedule for album releases meant that a new record was “due” from her this year, the prospect of a 2011 release from Tori Amos seemed rather unlikely. Following her highly productive 2009, in which she put out both Abnormally Attracted to Sin and the Christmas (sorry, Solstice) album Midwinter Graces, Amos has continued her long-standing collaboration on The Light Princess with Samuel Adamson, and the musical is finally set to open at the National Theatre next year. So the news of Night of Hunters, a new solo record from her, came as something of a surprise, even taking into account Amos’s enviable work ethic and the fact that she’s an artist who seems to find more hours in the day than most of us

Given her other commitments, it might have been anticipated that the new album would be a pared-down affair, one that curtailed Amos’s penchant for ambitious, large-scale projects. But if we know anything about Amos by now it’s that she’s not an artist who does things by halves. And so it was not entirely surprising to learn that Night of Hunters would be, in her words, “a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years … to tell an ongoing, modern story … [and] explore complex musical and emotional subject matter.” Oh, right, just that.

The project arose when Amos was approached by the Deutsche Grammophon label to produce a classical work, and it’s a challenge that she’s responded to with her customary zeal, whole-heartedness and attention to detail. Classical components have often surfaced in her music, of course, but Night of Hunters is her first album recorded through entirely acoustic means. Dispensing (temporarily, one assumes) with her regular band-mates, Amos has recruited a select group of musicians to collaborate with her on this venture: the celebrated Polish String Posse Apollon Musagéte and five woodwind instrumentalists - clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer, oboist Nigel Shore, flautist Laura Lucas, bassoonist Peter Whelan and contrabassoonist Luke Whitehead -with arrangements overseen by her long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale. And drawing on the venerable tradition of “variations on a theme,” Amos has incorporated pieces by favoured composers including Bach, Schubert, Granados and Satie into the work.

The resulting album feels entirely fresh but also of-a-piece with several recent Amos projects, notably her well-received concert with the Metropole Orchestra last October, and Midwinter Graces itself, an album which similarly tinkered with “found” texts, adapting and amalgamating classic carols. The sense of continuity between the two records is further reinforced by the reappearances of Amos’s daughter, Natashya, and niece, Kelsey Dobyns, on vocals here.

Listeners who’ve deemed Amos’s recent albums to be too “busy” and unfocused, marred by a surfeit of songs and styles, will find Night of Hunters to be her most cohesive and consistent album in years. Those concerned that “consistency” (especially of a “classical” nature) might equal boredom should be very pleasantly surprised by an album which, while lacking the playfulness that was once such a distinctive feature of Amos’s output, still exhibits her unerring ability to shift compellingly through contrasting emotions and moods.

Indeed, the exclusively acoustic context seems to have fired Amos up as an instrumentalist, since Night of Hunters features some of her most expressive and dynamic piano-playing (on record, at least) in some time. The arresting opening track, “Shattering Sea,” is a case in point, shifting from bruised low piano chords into a dramatic, Bernard Herrmann-esque frenzy of strings, woodwind and furious arpeggios as Amos intones the killer opening line: “That is not my blood on the bedroom floor.” Always a keen anatomist of relationship conflict, Amos here deposits the listener right into the thick of it, the track’s turbulence brilliantly evoking the emotional fallout of “every brutal word” uttered by a couple in crisis. Key themes and issues are established here - blame, self-betrayal, denial, the power of language - on an album on which Amos’s imagery tends mainly towards the elemental. Her previous songs have sometimes sought answers and analogues to human dilemmas in the contemplation of the cosmos, and Night of Hunters is a work of moons and suns, tides and waves, dusks and dawns, fires, skies and storms, an album on which the earthly and the ethereal are held in compelling balance. Throughout, the music breathes and builds, ebbs and flows, and Shenale’s expert arrangements convey intense intimacy and wide-screen expansiveness as required.

The frontal attack of “Shattering Sea” is followed by the rumbling, pensive, rather Antony-esque “SnowBlind,” a track which marks the first appearance of Amos’s daughter, Natashya, whose Adele-meets-Joanna-Newsom vocal contributions prove to be surprisingly effective. In the record’s rather diffuse narrative, Amos casts Natashya as “Anabelle,” a voice of wisdom and guidance. Thus Natashya’s three other appearances also function as turning points in the album’s arc, whether she’s encouraging our heroine to partake of the eponymous elixir in “Cactus Practice” or singing a riddling ode to adaptability on the brisk shape-shifter’s anthem “The Chase.” The slightly quaint “Cactus Practice” seems likely to be the song that draws the most opprobrium from the ever-vocal brigade of Toriphiles-turned-Toriphobes, but it’s an intriguing piece on which crisp piano lines and burbling woodwind provide an alluring setting to a subtly rebellious tale of “harmonic defiance.”

But the album’s emotional crux comes with the third song to feature Natashya, “Job’s Coffin,” a simply beautiful rallying-cry to claim one’s own sovereignty that’s infused with disarming warmth and a little gospel spirit. The notion of an 11-year-old singing lines like “There is a grid of disempowerment” may seem impossibly precious, but the young Miss Hawley pulls it off with total conviction, and “Job’s Coffin” takes its place as Night of Hunters’ most instantly accessible and stirring track.

The longest pieces here also sustain momentum and drive, however, and the spellbinding, 9-minute “Battle of Trees,” all pizzicato strings, sawing cello and undulating piano, is a standout, its lyrics turning the clock back a few thousand years to present our central couple as poet-warriors fighting on the same side in an epic war of words. The song’s imagery marks it out as a companion piece of sorts to the great original Midwinter Graces track “Winter’s Carol,” and once we reach the line about the Church beginning to “twist the old myths” we know that we could be in the company of no other artist but Amos.

An intoxicating, fluid chamber intensity is sustained on tracks such as the sensational “Fearlessness” and the elegant “Nautical Twilight,” a beautifully structured piece that takes the listener from dusk to dawn, and its narrator into a pivotal realisation. Spinning off of Schubert’s Sonata No. 20, “Star Whisperer” opens slowly, with a lugubrious vocal from Amos, but then ducks into a thrilling instrumental movement that features truly exceptional work from all of the players. Similarly intricate in its arrangement is the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”-referencing “Edge of the Moon” whose stately, restrained beginning gives way to a buoyant mid-section that The Beatles would’ve been proud to call their own. The mellifluous “Your Ghost” (on which Amos again pays lyrical homage to her favourite Liverpudlians) is soothing and conciliatory, and Amos’s delivery of the final verse is especially exquisite. Reigning in some of the cutesy affectations that marred some of her performances on Midwinter Graces she’s in good, supple voice throughout the record, her vocals entirely sensitive to the complexities and nuances of the music.

The title track, a vibrant duet for Amos and Dobyns that sounds like a lost outtake from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, riffs rather brilliantly on Charles Laughton’s 1955 chiller The Night of the Hunter, with “dark forces” out “to invade children’s dreams” challenged by a potent female energy. “Seven Sisters” is a lovely, twinkling instrumental duet for Amos and Ottensamer, while the closing “Carry” is one of those expansive, gracious, valedictory Amos ballads (think “1000 Oceans” via “Gold Dust” via “Toast”) that we’ve almost come to take for granted over the years. Whether the song really succeeds in bringing together the album’s complicated narrative strands is debatable, but when a finale is as heart-stoppingly beautiful as this one is it seems merely churlish to complain.

Despite their many successful and disarming moments, Amos’s recent albums have occasionally felt contrived in their effects but there’s a natural, organic quality to her work on Night of Hunters that is extremely gratifying to experience. Bracingly unfashionable, it’s an album that finds Amos operating on instinct once more, and building on the work of past masters to develop an utterly distinctive vision of her own. The result is a rich, immersive, timeless record of beauty, danger and grace, and one that ranks as one of Amos’s finest achievements to date.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.


  1. Fantastic review! Thanks for adding to the building excitement for this album :)

  2. Also, you're right: you shouldn't have been edited! ;)

  3. Sounds like an album to look forward to then! While there are other female singers I prefer, this early track is pretty good. Exclusively acoustic now has me interested.

  4. @Mark-Alexis Thanks, glad you enjoyed the "full" version. Editors should be banned, in my opinion. ;)

    @moviesandsongs365 Yes, I think you'll enjoy this album quite a bit, especially since you're a Joanna Newsom fan.

  5. The art of the review is apparently alive and well. Outstanding piece of work.

  6. Thanks, Craig, for the lovely comment.

  7. Definitely an ambitious record from Tori, and certainly somewhat more contained than her past few albums have been as well. I think because of her quirky persona and relative ongoing success (due to a persistent and vast underground legion of followers), she's been given fairly free rein to go wherever she wants with her music. While some editing or consistency could have helped to focus her last several projects, it's also nice to see an artist doing things however she wants to do them. I wasn't so taken in by the narrative or through-line on this album during my first listen, but I'll surely be playing it again as exquisite background music. I almost wonder if it would have worked better as an instrumental album for me; her vocals actually annoyed me at a few different points. And I miss electronic Tori, so I'll be glad to hear her return to all of that eventually. :)