1. Life Is (4:21)
2. A Good Man (3:49)
3. Childhood Dreams (6:31)
4. Les Larmes (9:36)
5. Tuesday Rain (5:08)
6. Ileana’s Song (3:37)
7. When You’re Dead (7:15)
8. Pigeon’s Intrusion (6:00)
9. Le Voyage (3:22)
10. Linear Blindness (4:12)
11. Butterflies (6:38)
Susan Clynes – piano, vocals
Simon Lenski – cello (3, 4, 7, 8, 11)
Pierre Mottet – bass (2, 6)
Nico Chkifi – drums (2, 6)
Belgian singer/pianist/composer Susan Clynes first came to the attention of the progressive rock audience for her stunning vocal performance on the song “Glass Cubes” (written by her husband, keyboardist Antoine Guenet, also a member of Univers Zéro and Sh.t.gn) on The Wrong Object’s critically acclaimed 2013 album After the Exhibition. With a solid academic background supporting her obvious passion for music, it was just a matter of time before Clynes’s talent – first showcased in the piano trio album Sugar for a Dream, released in 2005, when the artist was just 17 years old – was recognized outside the boundaries of her native country, thanks to the sponsorship of peerless talent-scout Leonardo Pavkovic of Moonjune Records.
Released in February 2014, Life Is… marks Clynes’ international debut, and presents material recorded by the artist during three concerts held in two different locations. Although not exactly a prog album (indeed, its conventional rock quotient is very limited, it does stand squarely in that vast “grey area” at the periphery of that much-debated genre, and does have enough progressive characteristics to appeal to a sizable slice of its fandom. True, its intimate nature and stripped-down instrumentation, may be seen as a turn-off by those who crave lush, multilayered arrangements and an impressive arsenal of instruments, both traditional and exotic. On the other hand, Life Is… is a poster child for that often-applied tag of “progressive but not prog” (a blessing or a curse, depending on points of view).
While comparisons to highly regarded artists such as Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Fiona Apple (not to mention their spiritual “mothers”, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell) abound, it would be unfair to suggest that Clynes is in any way a copycat artist. For one thing, her strong, confident voice (sounding a bit strained on a couple of tracks, but then at 26 years of age she has still plenty of room for growth), eschews the overly ethereal or mock-operatic tones adopted by far too many female singers, and is actually more effective when keeping to a mid-range. Additionally, Clynes places an even stronger emphasis on the instrumental component, often using her voice as an instrument rather than in “traditional” singing.
With its catchy melody and uplifting, life-affirming lyrics, the title-track possesses a faint Canterbury vibe even in its chamber dimension; Clynes’ emotional vocals and dramatic piano do not need any further embellishments to keep listeners on their toes. The song is one of four recorded during a solo performance at the library of the Cultural Centre of the Flemish town of Bree – together with the rarefied torch song of “Tuesday Rain”, the more assertive “Linear Blindness” and the gentle, impressionistic instrumental vignette of “Le Voyage”. On the other hand, the jaunty, energetic “A Good Man” (which reminded me a lot of Kate Bush) and the delightful, lilting ballad “Ileana’s Song” (dedicated to her daughter, who was born during the recording of the album) feature the discreet presence of Pierre Mottet’s double bass and Nico Chkifi’s drums, and were recorded during the first of two shows at Brussels’ historic Art Deco bar The Archiduc.
In the remaining five tracks (also recorded at The Archiduc, though on a different occasion), Clynes is accompanied by cellist Simon Lenski of Belgian chamber rock outfit DAAU on cello, with truly outstanding results. The distinctive sound of the instrument complements her voice, and allows her to display her full potential – as in the scintillating “Childhood Dreams” (dedicated to another influential figure in Clynes’ life, her aunt Yoka, who passed away while she was writing the album), with its breezy scat overtones. The 9-minute “Les Larmes” (the longest track on the album), dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is infused by a warm Spanish/Mediterranean feel enhanced by Susan’s lovely wordless vocalizing, while the cello, even with its occasionally strident, drawn-out tone, lends it an almost classical solemnity – which also emerges in the autumnal, Old-World-flavoured instrumental “Pigeon’s Intrusion”. In sharp contrast with the bright-eyed optimism of the title-track, “When You Are Dead” sounds hypnotic and ominous, with Clynes’ lower-pitched voice and the treated cello dipping and surging in unison in a blend of romanticism and tension – a pattern also displayed in haunting closing track “Butterflies”.
With a well-balanced running time of about one hour, plenty of melody, yet also ample room for more offbeat fare, Life Is… offers an accessible listening experience, yet with enough of an edge to appeal to listeners of a more adventurous bent. Packaged in an attractively minimalist cover showing a lovely photo of the artist’s face – embellished by clear gems that mirror the sparkling nature of her music – and the added interest value of Sid Smith’s impeccably penned liner notes, this album is already poised to become one of 2014’s highlights in terms of non-mainstream music releases.