Overlooked Records of 2012: Julia Holter’s Ekstasis

Published Dec. 28, 2012 on WVAU.org.

“Avant-pop.” “Ambient experimental.” “Ethereal.” “Baroque-pop.” Try as they might, the blogs cannot pin a clean tag on Julia Holter’s sophomore album Ekstasis.

Though they are not entirely wrong. Underneath the layers of antique atmosphere, swelling and staccato strings, floating vocals, oceanic synths, ambient echoes and theatrical structure, there is a pop record with hooks and melodies and harmonies.

The familiar pop foundation allows Holter to add all these meticulously composed, avant-garde elements to create a record unlike anything I have ever heard before.

“Ekstasis” means “to be outside of oneself,” accurate of how Holter must have felt while composing the record, and of my mindset when I sit down to listen and of the sounds she creates.

Album opener “Marienbad” shifts between movements, as if giving a sampler of what’s to come in the next 56 minutes. It starts with soft arpeggios leading into a sweet, bouncing verse and chorus. The song transitions into something more sinister, but you only notice once it has already happened. It stops, with sparse percussion to break the uncomfortable, relieved silence before the pleasant pop kicks back in, this time rewarding your bravery with joyful trumpet riffs.

(It’s worth nothing “Marienbad” is my no-brainer pick for my favorite song this year.)

The grand finale “This Is Ekstasis” entwines jangly, jazzy brass and strings seamlessly with layered chants of “Joy! Ekstasis!” and haunting vocal harmonies which feel as if they are coming from all different corners within your head.

I empathize with the critics who tried to put words to Ekstasis. It is hard. Holter’s careful composition of melodies and atmosphere defy all logic and stereotype of the “bedroom-pop” label under which blogs have lazily filed this record. Each listen, focused or casual, reveals new layers and peeling them back is such a joy.

For the reasons I could articulate and more so for the ones I could not, Julia Holter’s Ekstasis is my favorite album of 2012 and one of my favorite records ever.


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