The debut album from Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld has been in the works for nearly two years. With a stirling pedigree playing in a commercially successful, Grammy-winning group and working alongside popular post-classical composer/producer Nils Frahm, it’s fair to say Neufeld’s solo venture would be watched with heavy scrutiny.
Hero Brother presents Neufeld in a light unlike her indie-rock roots and as a bonafide post-classical violinist able to stand on her own, free of the aforementioned accolades presented to her as a member of Arcade Fire.
Hero Brother is for the most part, a collection of mysteriously dark and echoing pieces that are in every sense of the word – riveting. Neufeld’s compositions are heavily repetitious giving off a haunting effect in ways never imaginable with the solo violin. An atmospheric ride throughout, Neufeld’s writings for the solo violin are refreshingly stark in velocity at a furious tempo. Neufeld and her violin soar high from such harsh drops, sounding like the strings are squealing in the wind. Scraping to get by at every turn, near desperate even, many of the pieces on Hero Brother have an angry brashness.
Neufeld makes a point in her first four compositions to stress a repetitious howling of strings, resulting in possibly the greatest moments of the album. “Tower,” a serene and isolated opener, is Neufeld’s first offering of the record where she relays a somber and longing tone supported by a landscape of lush crooning. The title track “Hero Brother,” is a fiddle-like, heart-pounding solo, and while far and above the most aggressive piece on the record, exemplifies the chilling nature of the record as a whole. The notes off Neufeld’s strings in their vibrating tenacity, dance in erratic fashion through a barrel of looping hard beats. Emotionally-charged on a frantic non-linear path, the title track is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Neufeld’s minimalist works on Hero Brother (“They Live On”, “Below”) are less reliant on her violin voice to the point of being a near afterthought, and more so on dark ethereal production value. The end results of her labor are chilling movements with less of the finesse found on most of the album. Where Neufeld shines in performance is when she presents the opportunity to smoke the violin at free will with an almost reckless nature (“Right Thought,” “Spinter Fire”). Never will you hear a solo violin so shredded and in attack mode that Neufeld is practically on the verge of losing complete control in a desperate free-fall. Frahm makes appearances here and there with light touches of the piano, and though his keys are at opportune moments, the focus is never strayed off Neufeld’s strings – strong and overbearingly commanding at every second. His poignant touches on “Forcefulness” (the most reflective piece of the record) balance the sweeping gaelic manner of Neufeld’s violin and keep the piece grounded.
Hero Brother is a visionary album that may be understated due to Neufeld’s already well-achieved background. Neufeld’s writing ability, even in its debut form, are solid to stand toe-to-toe to the likes of Nico Muhly or dare we say Shostakovich. There is still that mixture of “indie-classical” that won’t appeal to some ears, but on a pure writing-level, Hero Brother is top-notch. It’d be difficult to think another violinist, no matter their pedigree, could create a type of record like this. Neufeld’s understanding of tone and atmosphere, gained from experiences outside the classical world, makes her a unique outlier who can create gripping compositions specifically for the personnel in mind.
Hero Brother is exactly the reason post-modern classical dorks spaz over unorthodox attempts at new works, and there’s plenty to geek out here with good reason. Neufeld has found ways to make the solo violin piece sing and sound bigger and more bellowing than what was possible. As a composer, a solo performer, and more importantly a visionary sage, Hero Brother is Neufeld’s authoritative stamp.
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