For the last week, I’ve been racking my brains trying to get my head around what the self-titled debut album from Australian musician Ela Stiles is supposed to be. I know what it’s intended to be – an album recorded completely a capella, with no instruments utilised bar Stiles’s vocals, in order to capture her at her most striking and vulnerable. But in practice, it just doesn’t feel complete.
The album is split into two distinct sides. The first half contains six short vignettes no more than two-and-a-bit minutes in length. There are some good things about these tracks – Stiles does have a strong and distinctive voice, which allows her to carry off the more conventional songs like the folky ‘Legs Don’t Bend’ quite well. However, at the same time it feels as if this whole section has been rushed and left unfinished. ‘Nothing Remains’ is over in 0 seconds, which doesn’t even give it a chance to start, let alone finish, whilst the titles of two of the songs, ‘Untitled Drone’ and ‘Untitled Man’, seem to suggest that these are merely the embryonic beginnings of some future track, not finished products in their own right.
The second half of the album is given over to ‘Drone Transitions’, a self-recorded 10 and a half minute song in which Stiles’s voice is layered and overdubbed many times to create a meandering wall of noise that ebbs, flows, then peters out over the space of its running time. It makes for a more interesting and coherent listening experience than the record’s first half, with its overwhelming sound giving it the impression of being a vocal-inflected tribute to Metal Machine Music. Whether you think that this is a good thing or not very much depends on whether you thought that album was either a bold artistic statement or a half-hearted contractual obligation.
Ela Stiles does not feel like an album in the traditional sense of the word. It feels more akin to a series of half-finished demos, a collection of music school experiments which have somehow escaped from the lab, or a group of vocals takes that Stiles intended to give to a dance producer, but were instead accidentally released to the big wide world. There are interesting seeds of ideas on the album, and it takes a lot of guts to release something so raw and exposed as your debut solo release. But as a record in its own right, I just don’t ‘get’ it, no matter how much I would like to.