Aside a small cassette run of 2014 EP 'Green Plastic', New Orleans-based artist and producer Melissa Guion emerged from as near nowhere as any musician can these days with debut LP 'Precious Systems'. One of 2016’s standout records, 'Precious Systems' revelled in its own dark, propulsive ambience – a tug of war going on between nature-evocating drones and drum-machine led industrialism – and deservedly popped up in several end of year lists.
Guion has toured as MJ Guider since, including sets at 2019’s much-lauded Roadburn Festival both with her own live band and alongside metal group Thou - so 'Sour Cherry Bell' doesn’t quite come out of the blue in the same way as its predecessor. Even so, there is a sense that the artist has once again quietly stepped out from the shadows to deliver this, her second record - apt for someone whose music has an absorbing habit of unfurling before the listener into full bloom from seemingly nothing,
There are some Cocteau Twins comparisons to be made, sure, so let’s get them out the way. In the rare interviews that she’s given, Guion herself has admitted a debt to the dream-pop trio, and the album title and a couple of the song titles alone.
'Cherry Bell Blacktop'; 'Sourbell' – wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if doctored onto the Heaven or Las Vegas track list. However, she also shares a couple more hard-to-come-by attributes with Liz Fraser et al: an ability to draw out melody from the distorted, sometimes abrasive swirl of sound she’s surrounded herself in; and a way of weighting her vocal with a heart-tugging emotion, even when largely used as an instrument. Guion is also, thankfully, far more than this shorthand comparison.
Too much concealment, or an attempt to make something a blank slate for the listener to project upon, runs the risk of falling flat. 'Sour Cherry Bell', though, hooks you in from the off.
Opener 'Lowlight' is a shimmering gothic lament. There are tracks like 'The Steelyard' which clatter and clang, as though mechanical billows working to power the roar of a great industrial furnace.
Something like 'Body Optics', meanwhile, leans heavily into dirgey drones and skittering electronics which sounds so far so Kranky Records (no bad thing mind); yet what marks it out is Guion’s voice, though obscured, singing sweetly tender melodies as though blissfully unaware of the falling detritus of noise around her. It’s followed up by the darkly exhilarating 'Quiet Time', which is anything but, as glottal machine percussion scythes through jarring synthetic loops and shudders, while Guion’s vocal battles to climb above it all.
Contrast that with 'Perfect Interference', which strips all the sequencing and layering away and leaves a vocal and piano at its root. It’s an illuminating track on 'Sour Cherry Bell', not just because of its relative calm, but also in the way it lifts the veil to show that it’s melody that’s at the heart of this record.
The album’s finale is Petrechoria, which acts as a final, breathy exhale of a coda, before it recoils and fades into silence. This time, I hope, MJ Guider won’t once again follow suit.
Words: Simon Jay Catling
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