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Dolphin Midwives, "Liminal Garden"

cover imageThis is arguably the formal debut album from Portland harpist Sage Fisher, though she previously surfaced with a fine cassette (Orchid Fire) back in 2016. Liminal Garden is on a completely different level than its more homespun predecessor though. If someone had told me fifteen years ago that several of my favorite artists would be harpists in the not too distant future, I would probably have thought they were completely delusional, but the instrument has undergone quite an incredible renaissance since Joanna Newsom's early albums blew up. While it is probably too soon to tell whether the more mysticism-minded Fisher has definitively earned a place in the same illustrious pantheon as Newsom and Mary Lattimore, her inventive use of effects and processing here frequently transcends harpistry altogether and calls to mind some of the most iconoclastic laptop composers of the early twenty-first century (if they lived in a fairy tale-like crystal palace in an enchanted forest). This is a wonderful and unexpected gem.

Beacon Sound/Sounds et al

Sage Fisher is an quite a complex, curious, and inscrutable artist, as her "Druid high priestess" look and her self-description as a "portal opening reverberating witch sister" suggest that her work would share a lot of common ground with some of the more pagan-minded proponents of the largely dispersed and forgotten Freak Folk/New Weird America milieu.That would be just fine by me (as long as the album was good), as I remain a devout Fursaxa enthusiast and likely will be one forever.Fisher, however, takes that foundational sensibility in quite an unexpected direction, combining folk instrumentation, a deep connection with natural world, Hindu philosophy, and a fascination with geometry to yield something altogether her own.In fact, Liminal Garden almost feels perversely futuristic–like the kind of art a mysterious feminist revolutionary would be making in a William Gibson or Blade Runner-esque dystopia.Wielding a battery of pedals, Fisher frequently transforms her harp's tumbling arpeggios into an unrecognizably squirming and snarling electronic abstraction.In fact, on the most experimental pieces, such as the roiling and churning "Labyrinth I" or the chirping and bleeping "Iridesce," it is nearly impossible to discern that a harp was involved at all…at least, not from the sounds.From a compositional perspective, however, Fisher's choice of instrument seems to play an extremely crucial role in the shape her vision takes, as these ten pieces could all be roughly described as variations of gently hallucinatory soundscapes built from rippling lattices of notes.

Fisher sings sometimes as well, an occasion that yields two of the album's most strikingly beautiful pieces: "Grass Grow" and "Mirror."The former resembles kind of a time-stretched and smoky choral work punctuated by dense swells of exotic-sounding backwards melodies."Mirror" is even more gorgeous still, as Fisher unexpectedly sings an actual melody (with words!) amidst a swooning, fluttering, and cooing web of hazy vocal layers.For an artist this devoted to effects, processing, and experimentation, Fisher has a remarkably strong intuition for nuance and clarity, subtly embellishing the piece's simple motif with unpredictable disruptions and fitful glimpses of a glimmering descending harp melody. According to a recent interview with Self-Titled, "Mirror" is the album's most conceptually heavy and personal piece, as Fisher attempted to evoke the feeling of "being devoured by a gaze…looking in the mirror and seeing someone you weren’t expecting to see looking back."While I suppose that rightfully makes "Mirror" a strong contender for the album's centerpiece, it was actually the languorously lovely "Junglespell" that initially won me over to the album, as it unexpectedly blossoms into a passage of visceral, churning catharsis that recalls prime Tim Hecker.That is not something I would expect to encounter on an album by a harpist at all, yet Fisher makes it feel convincingly earned and authoritative.The following "Castleshell" pulls off a similarly inventive twist, as its pretty descending melody gradually becomes engulfed by layers of backwards countermelodies as it inexorably builds towards an increasingly heaving and vividly chaotic climax.

I once heard a yoga instructor liken culture to nutrition, explaining that what your mind ingests determines the quality of your words and thoughts.That might not sound especially profound on its face, but it stuck with me and recently popped into my head when I was reading about the esoteric inspiration behind some Richard Skelton albums: artists with deeply restless minds and unusual, far-reaching interests tend to make some of the most fascinating and unique art.Liminal Garden triggered the same thought, as I was struck by how many interesting and divergent directions Fisher was able to take with an instrument that I always felt was fairly limiting.In hindsight, I now grasp that a harp is only limiting if the player's influences are primarily other harpists.Fisher seems blissfully unaware of such perceived constraints herself, as her instrument is merely a tool for realizing a much more expansive and ambitious vision teeming with Cambodian ruins, mazes, seashells, tropical plants, Hindu mythology, and significant moments from her personal life.Of course, realizing that inspiration lurks everywhere is just one piece of the puzzle, as the execution of one's vision is every bit as important as the vision itself.Fortunately, Fisher completely nails it with Liminal Garden.Some credit is probably due to Rafael Anton Irisarri's mastering work, as these pieces feel vividly and vibrantly alive, but Fisher gave him one hell of an album to work with: I can find something to love about nearly every song here.Part of me admittedly wishes the album was a little longer, as it seems to go by too quickly, but that is a fool's wish.  Liminal Garden is already a focused and near-perfect statement that seems to only get better each time I listen to it.No sane person would tamper with that.