When they were setting out to write their new six-song recording, As Above So Below, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor of Azure Ray were intent to depart from their original sound; that lushly haunted, dreamy folk pop that was born twelve years ago with their self-titled debut. "We wanted to go for something completely different," says Fink. The raven-haired duo, who met and began playing music together at fifteen years old in Birmingham, revived the band in 2010 after a seven-year hiatus to release the full-length Drawing Down the Moon. "For Drawing Down, we focused on revisiting the very first Azure Ray record. That approach facilitated Orenda and I bringing our sound together stylistically and emotionally after working so many years apart," explains Taylor. "For As Above So Below, we wanted it to be more like Azure Ray in an alternate universe."
And certainly the themes of alternative universes, Mother Nature, beginnings, endings, and re-birth surface in the songs. There is a wiseness in the fabric of the record, an understanding of the wisdom and patterns of the Universe and a sense of magic--whispers of gypsies telling fortunes in dreams, and a coming to terms with our powerlessness to the wills of nature and cycles of love. "It was hard not to think of those things," laughs Fink, "Maria was eight months pregnant during recording!" Sonically As Above is a sparser, more minimal and more electronic experience than past albums. "We looked for inspiration from James Blake, Nicolas Jaar, and Apparat in keeping the music minimal and modern but still working as a textural and emotional extension of the lyrics." Conveniently, Fink is married to Todd Fink of the celebrated electronica band The Faint, so they didn't have to look far for a guide into digital territory. "We enlisted my husband and Andy LeMaster (Bright Eyes, Now It's Overhead) as our dream team," says Fink. The Omaha-based Finks then packed up for Birmingham, where Taylor is now based with her boyfriend and baby. "Todd and I moved in with Maria and her boyfriend for a month to focus on experimental production and ideas before we even went to Andy's studio," says Fink. "Then the four of us holed up at Andy's and worked side by side for another month."
Longtime fans will be comforted to know that while in some ways As Above So Below is a departure, what isn't left behind is that unmatched, dreamy essence that arises when Fink and Taylor harmonize. You know an Azure Ray song when you feel it- it's chilling and familiar, like a draft of wind on the heart. It's a haunted dreamscape that's so compelling and evocative it's seen its way onto many soundtracks, appropriately as the protagonist is falling in or out of love. Azure Ray captures expertly that fuzzy feeling, the unknowns of the beginnings and the deterioration of the endings, they are guides through the dark corridors and unknown passages of the heart. The first track, "Scattered Like Leaves," reflects on the patterns of love, cyclical like the seasons of nature. Surveying the wreckage of a relationship, the song seems to ask--if we could know how it ends, would we ever fall in love at all? "If you could guess how the world will end/ what pockets of dreams would be emptied into the wind/ and scattered like leaves," Fink asks, bringing visions of all the things that scatter when a couple falls apart: not just the possessions and the mutual dreams, but the people themselves. Could we ever learn to read the patterns, like that of nature, and stay one step ahead of the heartbreak, the inevitable winter and death? "There's love everywhere," she sings, "there's sadness everywhere, so I keep moving, I keep moving on."
"Red Balloon"--the sweetest song of the collection--picks up where "Scattered Like Leaves," leaves off: the birth after death, painting a picture of the whimsical start to new love. "Your eyes, locked mine / took me by surprise like summer rain," Taylor sings, before promising to give all the love she'd been "saving up." The lyrics also reflect a connection to Mother Nature--the beautiful allusions to rain and trees feel deeply inspired by her pregnancy at the time of writing. "You've got to know you bring joy to everything," she sings in her soft lullaby lilt, "even the Weeping Willow tree."
"The Heart Has Its Reasons" features the only acoustic instrument on the recording-- a sad but patient piano, which is the spine of a song that stings with the sense of parting paths with a lover. "We wanted it to sound as intimate as possible," explains Fink, "so we taped paperclips to Maria's fingernails and close-mic'ed her hands and feet so that every movement was recorded along with the music." It's effective--it's almost like you can hear the soft steps of the walk away under the voices. The honesty of the realization; "I loved you more than you loved me, I know that now," echoes for anyone who's ever been on the losing end of love. "You can't change Nature's wishes," they warn, once more bowing to the wills of the Universe.
"We Could Wake," is the haunted house ride of the record. Like a mysterious dance through a dark maze, it nods to the great unknown, and moving through darkness despite your fears and smallness. "And through the open window we see the shadows face the light, are they coming for our lives," they harmonize ominously. Says Taylor of the intention of the record as a whole; "It reflects the uncertainties in the future that we all feel- along with the wonder and beauty." As above, so below. As in nature, Fink and Taylor heed, so in our lives.
- Sarah Durham Wilson