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  Cocteau Twins  
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How can i write this review?

How can i seriously write about what i, in all honesty, consider to be the ultimate zenith of recorded music. There is nothing that i have ever heard that compares to this album, nothing that soothes me, nothing as minimalistically complex as Victorialand that i can get lost in.

I have listened to this album at least once a week since 1989. I have spent years pouring through it's sounds, and am intimately familiar with every beat, echo, and aching vocal line. In a way, you cannot know PostLibyan without knowing Victorialand.

When i first read that Guthrie was going to remaster this album, i sat and stared, unbelieving, at my monitor. How dare he? How dare he re-touch this masterpiece? How dare he screw with something that has become so essential to my being?

The problem is this: to me Victorialand is perfection, so any change would have to be a change for the worse, right?

However, i had to order it. I just had to. And when it finally got here, i stared at the unopened disc for hours. What were the changes? What has he done? The answer, and i say this on repeated listens, is not bloody much. A few volume levels are tweaked here and there. The equalization is modified on a few songs. It's still Victorialand, and unless i have my headphones on i don't notice the difference.

Which is saying something after all. If someone as familiar with this album as myself can't really tell that it's been re-mastered, that means that the work is really subtle. So if you already own a copy of the original release, there is no reason to rush out and buy the re-master. However, this release does achieve the goal of making Victorialand more available, and hopefully many more people will listen to it.

And of course, it gives me the chance to review this album. I will try to be brief. I could talk for days about this one, but i will try and restrain myself. If you are the least bit curious about anything i have ever said on this site, go out and pick up a copy.

Before i get into the songs, a bit of history.

In 1985 the newest Cocteau Twin, Simon Raymonde, spent an extended period of time working with This Mortal Coil, a sort of "supergroup" made up of many musicians from the 4AD roster. During that time, Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie went into the studio and experimented. With the help of Richard Thomas (from 4AD band Dif Juz) they created Victorialand. So: their fourth full-length release, their fourth line-up (counting the addition of Thomas on a part-time basis as a new lineup different from the Fraser/Guthrie lineup on Head Over Heels), and their fourth sound.

With Victorialand, the Cocteau Twins' evolution had reached a certain peak. Gone are the goth sounds. Gone are attempts at poppishness. This is an album of exploration, of experimentation. I listen to it and i get the feeling that the artists involved thoroughly enjoyed what they were doing, and the music exists in this form for no other reason than that it made them happy.

Earlier Cocteau releases have either influenced scores of bands, or relied heavily on the sounds of the time. Victorialand, on the other hand, is totally unique. There is nothing like it, and very few bands even hint at this sort of sound. (Auburn Lull and Seefeel being the only two i can think of, after staring at my CD collection for a while.) Victorialand is unique, and as such, it is timeless. Listening to this album, it could have been made last week. It is totally out of touch with any other music, and it exists on it's own in a timeless void.

Okay, i'll stop gushing and get to the music.

Lazy Calm kicks the album off with a subtle haze of guitar. Eventually Thomas' saxaphone joins in, guiding you slowly forward through the rich haze, until the beat starts. It comes suddenly (after all these years, the start of the beat still comes at me by surprise: such is the mesmerizing power of the guitar/saxaphone haze), and at the same moment, the voice starts. Elizabeth Fraser sings lightly, her voice spewing nonsense syllables that dance with the now more prominant guitar and the simple bass line providing the beat. The feel of this song is what i imagine Nirvana to be like -- all softness and no real hurry.

The next song is a little more forceful. Fluffy Tufts is constructed out of guitar arpeggios repeated and layered with each other. Fraser's voice is heavily layered as well, while in the background a faint whisper of a bass riff provides a modicum of structure. For only three instruments, and mostly only two, this song has a lot of depth. Of course, Guthrie has said that sometimes there would be 15 tracks of voice in a song, so given that the richness is understandable.

Throughout the Dark Months of April and May is a very similar song, with a different rhythmic feel and different guitar arpeggios.

Whale's Tails is the only song from this album i ever heard live in the two times i saw the band. Fraser isn't even singing words here, only syllables, and Guthrie's guitar layers are combine with some sort of synth sounds. It is sparse and minimal and beautiful.

Oomingmak adds even more structure to the song construction. Guthrie's arpeggios are fast here, and provide a strong rhythmic base. Fraser sings fast here too, tearing through words in an almost scat style. This song ups the structure on the album just a bit, and in a good way.

The next track continues to up the tension, and is another of my alltime favorite songs. It's called Little Spacey, and Thomas's contributions are clearly heard in the lovely saxaphone counter-melody he plays to Fraser's voice. The sleighbell sound from Treasure is back, and i swear (in my white, poor-rhythmic sensical way) that this song is a waltz. Really. It lopes back and forth over a happy little melody, and the interplay of voice and sax give it a light, playful air. This is where the re-mastering is most noticable: the sax is a little more subtle on the original release, and bringing it forward in the mix was a great idea. An improvement actually. Who knew?

Feet-like Fins starts slowly as an almost ambient tune. Fraser is lightly singing strange syllables. And then, it pops: some level of tension that had built slowly and unnoticed through the drone is reached, and the guitars kicks into overdrive, along with scattered cymbal crashes, and Fraser singing deeply, tensely. This is an odd song, and one that has alwyas thrown me for a loop. It is a good tune, but a strange spot of tension in an otherwise tranquil album.

The tension carries over slightly in How to Bring a Blush to the Snow, at least until Fraser's voice kicks in. Somehow the worry of the guitar is comforted by the contrasting layers of her voice. In general this song proceeds along at a decent pace.

And finally Victorialand comes to a close with The Thinner the Air. This is a stunningly complex and beautiful song, with soaring voice and distorted sax over a low bass rumble. Fraser's vocals here sound like a mournful aria from some Italian opera about a lovesick, desperate woman. It fades out slowly, imperceptibly. A wonderful end to the album.

An album that is, alas, over too soon. Victorialand clocks in at just over 40 minutes. And yet, for that brief time it creates such wonder, such majesty, that i just want to hear it again. And again. And again. Like i said, i have been listening to this album for years and years, and i find it continually rewarding.

By definition, this album gets 7 sponges. In fact, i would give it more if Brendan were to allow me. It is touching and beautiful and utterly unique.

Should you buy this album? Heck yeah. It is the perfect accompaniment to sitting and relaxing, however you choose to do so. At first it might seem too minimal, too sparse, but if you give it half a chance Victorialand will amaze you.

And here ends our history lesson. The first chapter(s) in what is definitely my favorite band, as well as a band that did some very different things musically.

One final historical rumination: sometimes, when listening to Victorialand, i think it is incomplete. What i mean is, the bass is barely present. I know that Guthrie is capable of playing all the instruments on an album by himself (he did so on Head over Heels quite well), and yet here he is restrained. Why?

In some ways, i think that what we hear in Victorialand is a sort of demo. This is what he and Fraser recorded while Raymonde was busy with This Mortal Coil. Some of the songs in the middle scream out for the addition of some bass. So i have always wondered: when they were recording this did Guthrie and Fraser think that Raymonde would contribute when he came back? If so, why was it released? If not, then why did they go in such a minimalistic direction?

But of course, these are the wonderings of a diehard fan. I mention them here because it might help give some perspective on this work. And, incomplete or not, Victorialand is the most beautiful thing i have ever heard.

I think i'll go put it on now.

Related Links:

This review is part of a series. Here is the whole thing, in order:

Thoughts on "re-mastering"
Head Over Heels

Also, i have previously reviews Stars and Topsoil, a greatest hits compilation from 2000.


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