In Audiovisual Debut Album “AmethYst,” Yaz Lancaster Curates Internal Dialogues with Collaborators

Yaz Lancaster is a transdisciplinary artist, composer, and violinist whose work combines various techniques of contemporary classical, electronic music production, and spoken word. Their new album, AmethYst (released April 7 via People Places Records), is an audiovisual exploration of the dynamic possibilities that arise from their unique skill set, in collaboration with other musicians. Most of the compositions are accompanied by a video, although an inherent strength of the collection is how well the tracks stand on their own in a purely audio format. AmethYst is already a strong contender for my favorite album of the year; the project is particularly notable for its commitment to a broad vision of music-making, which places different approaches and techniques into a unified dialogue.

Though a variety of composers and collaborators are featured, the careful manipulation of small musical moments gives AmethYst a unifying creative approach, making the track sequencing an important component of the listening experience. Every track is in dialogue with what came before and what comes after it, which speaks to Lancaster’s guiding vision for the record.

AmethYst seems to bloom from its opening statement. Composed by Lancaster, “Y” begins with a shimmering bell that quickly gives way to a swirl of electronic pulses, forming the background for a digitally manipulated vocal melody. Featuring guest appearances by Dorothy Carlos (electric cello) and Connie Li (violin), “Y” is an ideal opener, setting clear thematic strands that will be carried through the rest of the album.

Yaz Lancaster -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Yaz Lancaster — Photo courtesy of the artist

Amanda Berlind’s “Lavender Tooth” features an expansive range of layered violin and voices against a piano filtered in the background. The piece has such a gradual and deliberate build that its sudden conclusion — almost an interrupted cutoff — is extremely satisfying, with a suck-the-air-out-of-the-room effect. In the video, created by Berlind herself, a single shape is slowly recolored, giving the impression that some component of the color manipulation is triggered by a vocal part.

Gramm Drennen’s “of neither water nor land” is a standout work on AmethYst. Every sound is carefully selected, the music overflowing with energy while also making room for pensive exploration. A violin melody is built on variations of an intervallic motif, then repeated in full by a synthesizer. The piece ends with violin and synthesizer trading melodic figures. A grainy video by Tanea Hynes shows a marine creature of some kind swimming off the coast — you can’t fully discern what is being shown. As the violin and synthesizer melodies develop, the camera sweeps across the landscape.

Spoken word is a central feature of Phonodelica’s “Monroe Park,” which sees Lancaster exploring memories of attending a Palestinian liberation protest. Jasiel Lampkin’s video features Lancaster performing the piece live, but, in an effort to depict how our perceptions of political turmoil can be warped, the video is also distorted. On an album full of oblique abstractions about the ephemerality of gender, this narrative about the socio-political complications of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a welcome addition for its direct and explicit storytelling.

“X” marks a middle point on the album and effectively divides the tracks into two distinct, yet cohesive suites. Keaton Garrett’s “come as you are” is the most “contemporary classical” of the album, which gives Lancaster a chance to show off virtuosic playing and extended techniques. In contrast, BAKUDI SCREAM’s “GHOST IN THE MACHINE” is the most abstract work on the album, taking a maximalist approach to texture, creating imposing soundscapes that dominate the listener’s attention. Yet, the influences of minimalism are clearly felt in the way a single idea is explored through long stretches of time and slow changes. Theo Woodward’s video matches the music’s confrontation of huge vs. small, acoustic vs. electric, and real vs. imagined, attempting to define the boundary between these opposing forces.

In Andrew Noseworthy’s “Round Trips,” Lancaster’s scratchy and harmonic solos against an electronic backing track are in direct response with the feedback of “GHOST IN THE MACHINE.” “wind_down_2” and “XY,” both by Lancaster, form a thoughtful conclusion to the record that exists in conversation with the other commissioned works and summarizes the musical ideas of their collaborators. Leilehua Lanzilotti’s “Ko’u inoa” is designated as a bonus track; it’s a beautiful piece full of swirling violin arpeggios and vocalizing by Lancaster, but its inclusion at the end slightly undermines the exceptional final track sequence.

As a whole, AmethYst is an awe-inspiring collection of works. Each track is a unique take on Lancaster’s practice as a transdisciplinary artist, but the 11 pieces together form an internal dialogue that is hard to ignore. AmethYst is a masterclass in track sequencing and in looking at an album from a broad perspective, without sacrificing isolated moments. The resulting album is full of delightfully unexpected ear worms. It begs for repeated listens.


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