Julia Holter releases Ekstasis

Musician Julia Holter creates a lovely, upbeat atmosphere in her new album Ekstasis.   (credit: Courtesy of RVNG Intl.) Musician Julia Holter creates a lovely, upbeat atmosphere in her new album Ekstasis. (credit: Courtesy of RVNG Intl.)

When Julia Holter released her album Tragedy last year, it quickly received plenty of critical acclaim: National Public Radio named it one of the top 10 “outer sound” albums of 2011 while FACT magazine ranked it at No. 13 on its list of best albums of the year. The album, which centers around Euripides’ play Hippolytus, combines psychedelic soundscapes with Holter’s echoing vocals and a multitude of musical influences to create a swirling, brooding atmosphere befitting the Greek tragedy. Her new album, Ekstasis, keeps the groovy sounds but abandons Tragedy’s moodiness in favor of a peppy, more accessible sound.

However, the differences between Ekstasis and Tragedy are evident from the opening notes. While Tragedy began with hazy, atmospheric ambience, Ekstasis begins with what sounds like a pop version of Baroque chamber music. The differences only continue from there. The rich soundscapes are still there, but instead of ominous foghorns and clanging, they’re accompanied by peppy synthesizers and upbeat percussion.

These differences don’t make Ekstasis less musically interesting. The album still has a dreamy haziness about it, as though you’re listening to it echo through a cloud of smoke. Instead of the ominous vibe emanating throughout Tragedy, Ekstasis has a calmly contented feel.

Holter still weaves a fascinating blend of musical influences into her soundscapes — Ekstasis has everything from a Baroque harpsichord to an ’80s-inspired synth to eastern-influenced ambient sounds. Embedded in all these musical layers is Holter’s voice, which ranges from an operatic style to a bouncy pop sound to a whispered spoken word. In less skilled hands, this huge range of sounds could quickly devolve into chaos, but Holter pulls everything together skillfully to create a musical atmosphere that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

This musical atmosphere allows Ekstasis to succeed where Tragedy sometimes fell short. Tragedy is so focused on pulling in as many threads of sound as possible, and so intent on fitting the theme of Hippolytus, that it often feels overly intellectual. With the previous album, the listener can appreciate the mastery that Holter is showing in her music, but this sometimes makes it difficult to get lost in the brooding atmosphere Holter is trying to create.

In Ekstasis, though, Holter seems to be less pressured to prove her talents, and instead focuses on creating a lovely atmosphere that allows you to step outside yourself and into Ekstasis’ rich musical world.

Ekstasis will be released on March 8, but can currently be streamed online at NPR.org.