Sainkho Namtchylak,
Stepmother City
(Ponderosa, 2000)

Overtone or throat singing became an almost prosaic phenomena in the 1990s. A Huun-Huur-Tu CD could be found in the collection of any self-respecting "world music" fan and Tuvan ensembles began to tour in Europe and the United States. Throat singing even found its way into house and electronica and the eerie whistling overtones could be heard side by side with TR 808 programmed beats and synth baselines. These fusions never seemed very successful and often downright painful.

Enter Sainkho Namtchylak. Born in Tuva, Namtchylak was exposed to music through the songs of her grandmother. She studied music at her local college, but was prevented from obtaining professional certification in the styles traditionally sung by Tuvan males. Namtchylak then moved to Moscow where she furthered her studies and began her initial collaborations with jazz and avant-garde musicians. Eventually, she settled in Vienna, where she has released several albums of her unique fusion of overtone singing and contemporary and avant-garde music.

Stepmother City, Namtchylak's latest release, is at once alien and wonderful. Ancient Tuvan instruments such as the igil, kurai and dospuloor are played side by side with electric guitar, turntables and bass. The sterility of programmed beats and samples are tempered by the intense, emotive range of Namtchylak's vocals. Comparisons to Icelandic chartreuse Bjork are inevitable and apt, but Namtchylak's vocal style is singular and her music considerably more challenging. From low guttural rumblings to piercing sonar-like shrieks, Namtchylak exploits her seven-octave range to its full extent.

Standout tracks include "Dance of the Eagle," "Old Melodie" and "Ritual Virtuality," where Namtchylak's voice merges beautifully with shakuhachi played by Ned Rothenberg. Rothenberg's shakuhachi playing is a perfect complement to her voice and is underutilized on the CD. The most compelling track on the CD is "Lonely Soul," which is a true showcase for Namtchylak's voice. From a delicate, ethereal intro, the song segues into an all-out shriek fest, culminating in a drum 'n' bass/voice duet, where skittering snare rhythms are matched by the rapid-fire undulations of Namtchylak's larynx. Her vocal acrobatics are brutal and borderline terrifying, but they have a car-wreck magnetism that attracts as it repulses. More than any other track, this captures Namtchylak's range and intensity, and it alone makes the recording worth investigating.

Some of the material on the CD delves a little into new-age territory, with synth harp pads and somewhat banal lyrics, but even the least interesting tracks have their moments thanks to the extraordinary range and depth of Namtchylak's voice. Stepmother City is an album of disquieting beauty, not for the faint of heart, but ultimately an intriguing glimpse at the crossroads of the futuristic and the primeval.

- Rambles
written by Rob Stephenson
published 14 December 2002

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