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Tori Amos Experiments With Classical Motifs

Tori Amos -- 'Night of Hunters' --Deutsche Grammophon -- 3.5 STARS

By Galila M. Gray, Crimson Staff Writer

It is rare for a musician to continually evolve over almost 20 years, but on “Night of Hunters,” Tori Amos refuses to repeat herself. She has transformed her style, and she incorporates distinctive compositions and showcasing her skills as an innovative songwriter. She maintains her trademark ethereal vocals and cryptic, pointed lyrics throughout “Night of Hunters,” yet also reaches beyond her established sound. The risks she takes are often successful, but some may be off-putting for those who are accustomed to her older work.

“Night of Hunters” is the work of an accomplished musical architect known for building disparate musical elements into grander wholes. On a few of her more successful tracks, Amos layers her poignant lyrics over samples of classical pieces by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin. Album opener “Shattering Sea” executes this uncommon mélange impeccably in a compelling, energetic vocal concerto. However, the spotlight shifts noticeably to the instruments on other tracks of “Night of Hunters,” making the album play more like the score of a dramatic film than the work of a singer-songwriter. At times, vocals even seem more like an afterthought than an integral factor. “Seven Sisters,” the only all-instrumental track, feels complete with a perfect meld of classical piano melodies and cheery woodwind tunes. “Snowblind,” “Fearlessness,” and “Star Whisperer” all consist of instrumentals that evoke more emotion than the lyrics do. Each of these songs builds upon one another, and reflects the rising action of the story, which culminates in the theatrical climax of the titular track. “Night of Hunters” is an intricate, swirling triumph ending in operatic vocal harmonies. “Carry,” the final song, is a solemn dénouement during which broken piano chords bring the vigor of all its predecessors down to a beautiful, lulling conclusion.

Though there are moments of impeccable instrumentation, the album relies too heavily on repetitive tropes. Piano introductions feature prominently on almost every track, and this overuse mars the album with predictability. However, Amos’s frequent use of melodic woodwinds and soothing cellos adds more versatility and emotional depth to the music, and lifts it back up to a caliber comparable to that of Amos’ previous work. “Battle of Trees,” one of the record’s standout tracks, includes light pizzicato notes on the violin that tread softly beneath Amos’ floating vocals and the cello’s harmonic double stops. On this track, Amos’s idiosyncratic allusions to the Celtic Tree Calendar in a love song perfectly complement—and are not overshadowed by—the equally whimsical instrumentals. “Fearlessness” includes a cello for rich, foundational support under resonant deep notes in the ubiquitous piano interludes and a buoyant flute.

Perhaps one of the stranger aspects of this album is that four of its tracks feature Natashya Lorien Hawley, Amos’s 11-year-old daughter. Hawley’s voice has the same unassuming quality as her mother’s, but with throatier vibrato and more youthful mainstream appeal. The tone of her voice is still primarily rooted in adolescent naïveté but she takes on mature premises that stretch far beyond her years—“There is a grid of disempowerment / Our forces are being called to dismantle this”—with the poise of a professional, and specifically that of her mother. In “The Chase,” a musical dialogue between the two vocalists, Amos weaves in moral wisdom and shares her musical expertise with her daughter. In these songs, the attention paid to the vocals makes the tracks all the more engaging, and hints at what Amos could have accomplished were her vocals not merely supplemental to her elaborate orchestration.

“Night of Hunters,” an inimitable blend of vocal arrangements, orchestral scoring, and spiritual homage to nature—as on “Battle of Trees,” “Shattering Sea,” and “Cactus Practice”—is characterized by calculated, rewarding risks that demonstrate Amos’s innovation, songwriting ability, and skills as a mentor. Though her adventurous incorporation of classical motifs comes at the expense of a more traditional songwriting prowess, Amos makes a significant achievement in composing an album that effectively uses chamber music as a tool relevant to the times.

—Staff writer Galila M. Gray can be reached at ggray14@college.harvard.edu.

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