Galya Bisengalieva’s Aralkum is an Energizing and Haunting Escape

Kazakh-British composer Galya Bisengalieva creates a dynamic and immersive ambient world with her latest release Aralkum (One Little Independent Records). The album is a direct response to the shrinking of the Aral Sea, which is considered to be one of the greatest environmental disasters our planet has ever seen. The communities impacted by this disaster, coupled by the response of Kazakhstan in building the Kokoral Dam, offer some rich points of entry for Bisengalieva to explore. The six works of Aralkum consider three visions of the shrinking Aral Sea: Pre-disaster, Calamity, and Future.

From the onset of Aralkum’s eponymous first track, Bisengalieva drops the listener into the middle of a vast and ominous ocean of sound. Much of the album explores super-saturated textures with distant, downtempo beats. An accomplished violinist, Bisengalieva brings luscious layers of strings to the forefront of these tracks. At times, they swell with reverb to completely fill the space; at others, single notes ring like the edge of a crystal wine glass when played with a wet fingertip.

Galya Bisengalieva--Photo by Gwenaëlle Trannoy

Galya Bisengalieva–Photo by Gwenaëlle Trannoy

Bisengalieva’s style is often described as dark, ambient, and atmospheric, but what really sets her sound apart is a keen attention to depth. A certain amount of independence is given to the densely packed, swirling layers. As certain sounds rise above and recede into the depths, we are given new visions of what lies just below the surface. The end result is dazzlingly kaleidoscopic—shying away from static repetition in favor of irresistibly well-paced transformations. “Moynaq” and “Kantubek” are particularly dynamic in their play between layers. Droning harmonic sounds are interwoven with fluttering, breathy sounds on contrabass flute, performed by Pasha Mansurov. These tracks are as much airy as they are liquid, with close-miced strings emphasizing the breathy quality to the friction of bowhair against string.

The electroacoustic blend on Aralkum is flawless. Bisengalieva tactfully merges electronic sounds with varying degrees of processed acoustic instruments to fashion a unified and believable sound world. The structure of each track walks the line between seeming strictly composed and freely improvised. Aralkum is alive with an energy that brings to mind the power of the natural world. Although we may try to control it, its wildness is undeniable.

“Barsa-Kelmes” is a standout. An undulating bass churns below graceful smatterings of violin arpeggios. SONAR-like pings cut through the thick texture, and subtle sounds of pressurized air feather the edges. At times, loose harmonic particles grow together to form clear shapes, and at others, they disintegrate back into flotsam. As “Barsa-Kelmes” seeps away with fading resonance, the distant sound of squawking shore birds neatly brings home a nautical imagery.

“Kantubek” brings a sharp contrast in tone with its bubbly, effervescent palette and dreamy harmonies. A simple 1-2 beat puffs away in the background with a quiet optimism. There is something decidedly human at play in this break from the ominously vast and dark droning material that comprises most of the album. In the final track, “Kokaral,” Bisengalieva leaves us with a different kind of expansive texture: a rich drone that reads not as ominous or foreboding, but rather brilliantly shimmering. Perhaps this is one possible future of the Aral Sea, of the planet, of humanity.

Aralkum is a brilliant concept album. It is a journey rich with natural imagery and compelling sonic environments that linger long after their final sounds evaporate. If you are looking for a meaningful evening escape (and who isn’t right now), grab a pair of quality headphones, dim the lights, and give Aralkum an undivided listen. When you return, you may find yourself like I did: oddly refreshed and infused by a wild energy.


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