I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website. It's an expanded version of a review I of this album for Good Times Magazine in 1998.
Imagine just for a moment that you could learn a magic spell so powerful that it would open the gates of hell just a crack so you could hear some of the sounds from within. Or that you could turn your radio to WHLL for Satan's top spins of the week. Imagine you could gene splice Stephen King and Clive Barker with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Or if imagining that is too much work for you, but you want to achieve the same effect, you could just listen to the album Estrella by the band Lycia.
Lycia (on this album, anyway) is the husband/wife team of Mike Vanportfleet and Tara VanFlower from Superstition, Arizona (I swear this is true). They refer to their style as ethereal goth/dark ambient, which is a pretty accurate description. Originally formed by Vanportfleet in 1988, Lycia managed to create a decent-sized following throughout the U.S., especially after VanFlower joined the band in 1994. Estrella was the third album they released thereafter, following on their 1995 double album The Burning Circle and Then Dust and their 1997 release Cold.
Estrella is an album of great somber beauty. It perfectly combines Vanportfleet's dark musical sensibilities with VanFlower's brighter lyrics and vocal style. The songs are all slow and minimalistic, instrumentally sparse but full of atmosphere. They're like sound paintings of scenes from some strange dimension, both gloomy and alluring, drawing you in and distressing you in equal measures. There are several instrumental tracks, notably the first and last songs on the album, "Clouds in the Southern Sky" and "Distant Fading Star". Throughout the rest of the album, Vanportfleet and VanFlower trade vocals. His are whispered, and deliberately barely audible, as though his throat has been scorched by hellfire. However, it is on the tracks where VanFlower sings that the album really takes off. Her voice is lovely and ethereal, but there's more to it than that. There's something playful about her vocals, in a dangerous kind of way, like the demons in one of the Evil Dead films who taunt Bruce Campbell's Ash character, singing "I'll swallow your so-ul! I'll swallow your so-ul!"
VanFlower shines brightly on tracks like the nightmarish "El Diablo", singing lyrics such as "See the serpent twine/Wrapped around her spine/Coils inside her mind/Bleeds her eyes so blind", and on the wistful "Silver Sliver", where her words are more stream-of-consciousness, and her delivery more gentle, as she plays off of Vanportfleet's high single guitar notes and a recurring 3-note piano chorus. Then there is the song entitled "The Canal", where her wordless vocalizing is as disturbing as it is effective.
The highlight of the album, however, is the stunningly beautiful title track "Estrella". It begins with a few lines of slow percussion which lead into piano and synthetic string sounds for several measures. Vanportfleet's deliberate guitar then kicks in, followed by some of VanFlower's most unearthly vocal work. "You/Peach lips, rose hips/Wrapped around/You", she begins. Particularly effective are her high-pitched "La la la la"'s on the chorus. If you analyze the lyrics carefully, I think it's just a simple love/lust song, but somehow, it sounds like something so much more than that, like it's happening on some kind of higher (but vaguely ominous) plain. For me, this is undoubtedly the finest song they ever recorded.
On the whole, I would rate Estrella as Lycia's best album. They released four full-length studio albums after it, as well as two EPs and a couple of compilation albums, but Estrella was their zenith, at least so far. If slow, doleful synthesizer music and restrained electric guitar, simultaneously lightened yet made more threatening by otherworldly female vocals, is something you think you might enjoy, chances are high you'll love this album.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars