Susanna Wallumrød has always been something of a wayfarer. Initially known as a re-interpreter of alternative hits, she has since journeyed nomadically from project to project, assuming and discarding identities at will. First there was Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, then Susanna the respected Jenny Hval collaborator, Susanna & the Ensemble neoN and now Susanna & the Brotherhood of Our Lady.
Under this latest moniker she has gathered an all-female experimental outfit to assist her in writing a concept album inspired by the paintings of 15th Century Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, who was bankrolled in part by a religious order called the Brotherhood of Our Lady.
After a rare regression back to covering the work of others on last year’s ‘Go Dig My Grave’, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ is a welcome return to the thoughtful originality of 2016’s ‘Triangle’. That record was a sprawling and often unfocused rumination on the restless uncertainty of the human soul, a description that could easily be applied to any and all of Bosch’s huge, elaborate triptychs.
Gifting herself a clear conceptual anchor allows Susanna to further explore the conflict that drives human nature, without painting too far off the edge of her own canvass again.
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Born when the repression of the Middle Ages was giving way to the creativity of the Renaissance, Bosch often depicted the moral and spiritual crossroads he saw humankind stuck at. On one side, the immediate fulfilment of human desire, and, on the other, the promised ecstasy of salvation, a dilemma conveyed most literally in his famous painting The Wayfarer.
Susanna evidently sees humanity as being caught at a similar crossroads today - her own two ‘The Wayfarer’ tracks providing the core around which the rest of this album revolves. Rather than getting lost in her own myth-making, she repeatedly hones back in in on the one subject that so enraptured Bosch: the never-ending battle between desire and deliverance that rages within the human heart.
There’s a running environmental subtext that surfaces on ‘Gathering of Birds’ and ‘Ship of Fools’, a sharp rebuke of our willingness to trade in our own garden of earthly delights for convenience (“We don’t mind, We are all blind to what will come for everyone”).
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She also calls for humanitarianism over profit on ‘Gluttony and Lust’ (“We deserve to ignore, The hunger and suffering is self-inflicted and not our fault”) and the anti-capitalist hymn ‘Death and the Miser’. If her lyrics feel rather blunt on occasion, it is worth remembering that the works of Bosch are not famed for their subtlety either.
Although Susanna has shown herself to be a dab hand with atmospherics in the past, here the Brotherhood of Our Lady prove invaluable in fleshing out her skeletal compositions, helping to mix a broad sonic palette with which to mimic the intricacy of Bosch’s style. Focusing in on any one part you’ll discover new detail. The sonorous bells of ‘Ecstacy X’ convey an appropriate aura of religious dread, while the introduction of their Harpy-like trills adds a sense of unease to the otherwise peaceful ‘River To Hell’.
Special recognition should be given to Ida Løvli Hidle, whose soaring accordion instils in the listener a sense of both hope and sadness that is difficult to shake off afterwards.
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Despite the band’s diverting attempts, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ is not the sound of Bosch’s visual genius successfully bottled as music. ‘River To Hell’ and the two ‘Ecstasy’ tracks might hint at something darker, but Susanna and her Brotherhood lack the sonic ugliness necessary to capture his infamously hellish tableaus (you know, the ‘Slayer album cover’ stuff) and convey the sheer breadth of his mind’s eye.
This, however, this is not the album’s intent. The affinity Susanna has found with this long-dead Dutchman doesn’t come from his hallucinatory visions of heaven or hell, but his fascination with what lies midway between the two. She, like Bosch, wants to know whether humanity has the capacity to save itself and the garden that nourishes it. It could be that we get an answer to this question sooner than we might like.
Words: Josh Gray
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