After a handful of teasing and divergent singles, Caterina Barbieri's first full-length on her own light-years imprint is finally here. To be honest, I had some early apprehensions about how well Spirit Exit would stack up against previous releases, as this is an unusual Barbieri album for a couple of significant reasons. The most obvious one, of course, is that this is the first of the Milan-based synth visionary's albums to feature vocal pieces. Equally significant is how the album was composed and recorded, however, as Barbieri's previous releases gradually took shape from her eternally evolving live performances. Spirit Exit, on the other hand, is "100% studio music, written and recorded amidst Milan's infamous, dramatic extremely strict two-month lockdown...at the very start of the pandemic in early 2020." The drama and darkness of the period unquestionably surface a lot on these pieces, but the unraveling of civilization was but one of Barbieri's major influences at the time, as Spirit Exit was also inspired by "female philosophers, mystics and poets spread across time...united in their strength at cultivating vast internal worlds." Barbieri is no slouch at cultivating vast internal worlds herself, as evidenced by the "psycho-physical effects of pattern-based repetition" explored in her earlier work and the second half of the album features several pieces that feel like instant classics. Some of Barbieri's attempts to expand her vision into more pop and dance-inspired places work a bit less well to my ears, which ultimately gives Spirit Exit a bit of a "transitional album" feel, but those pieces may someday dazzle me after being further honed by live performances or inspired collaborations (she previously managed to floor me once with Fantas and again with Fantas Variations, after all).
In classic “Fantas” fashion, Spirit Exit continues the fine Barbieri tradition of leading off her albums with an absolutely killer opener. In this case, the masterpiece is “At Your Gamut,” which resolves into something resembling beatless deconstructed house music after a brief snarl of sputtering, howling entropy. The heart of the piece is its bittersweet synth melody, however, which leaves psychotropic vapor trails and tendrils of arpeggios and countermelodies in its wake. Aside from being a great song, it is a perfect illustration of why Barbieri is on a plane all her own, as it is a fiendishly complex feast of interlocking melodies, shifting textures, and gleamingly futuristic, neon-lit beauty. Notably, “At Your Gamut” also inspired Barbieri’s first foray into sampling, as “it later gets crushed, accelerated and unrecognizably transformed into the ghostly hook” of yet another stellar piece (“Terminal Clock”). While earlier pieces on the album merely flirt with dance music, “Terminal Clock” is the piece in which Barbieri finally goes all in with absolutely sublime results, as swooning vocal fragments beautifully collide with a lurching kick drum thump, pulsing chords, melodic strings, and some wonderfully gnarled and tortured-sounding textures. To my ears, it is an instant stone-cold classic of outsider techno and an enticing glimpse of where Barbieri may be headed next. Remarkably, however, “Terminal Clock” is sandwiched between two other gems of similarly high caliber: “Life At Altitude” and “The Landscape Listens.”