Upper Hell is Ela Orleans’ much anticipated follow up to the magical Tumult in Clouds album from 2012. The noir pop wizardess teams up with uber-producer Howie B for her new music, and seductive, brilliantly evolved sounds are the inevitable result. On the man’s HB imprint on CD and vinyl, and destined to win over many more hearts with this effort.
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Musician, artist, dreamer, nomad and proud insomniac Ela Orleans is no stranger to Norman Records. One of the absolute finest things about having worked in this madhouse of a shop for aeons is discovering the odd song, EP or real grown up long playing album out-of-the-blue; one that leaves you in awe at its classic pop nous, neo-romantic intimacy and cinematic beauty. A record so almost perfectly formed that it offered me both comfort and abandonment of duties in equal measures. That was what I found and have since cherished in 'Lost', her 2010 vinyl début on an obscure French label that one day randomly leapt at me from a dusty promo stack; her fierce eyes on the sleeve captivating, humorous and defiant - demanding you stopped fooling about and listen to her world.As Ela's reputation, popularity and discography has swelled considerably in the last half-decade, it's interesting to note that everything she releases you feel you should own as it will contain several songs that are utterly peerless and just make you feel so much more emboldened and optimistic about life, with their occasional downbeat, darkly romantic or crepuscular themes juxtaposed with haunting poppy ephemera and irresistible grooves. Songs we've so enjoyed in the past have been veered in style from euphoric hook-laden 60s-spy-film groovers, bubbling experimental techno pop, weepy film-noir esoterica and even that ace little punky lo-fi shin-kicker on her last LP (one that especially thrilled ex-Norman wordsmith Mike). Not much has changed....but somehow it subtly has? It's the sheer soulful resonance of so much of Ela Orleans' work that makes such a strong impression on her many thousands of fans and after the rather unexpected sprawling opulence of 2012's grand opus 'Tumult in Clouds' turned countless heads 180 degrees west, I think a huge number of folk are now most curious as to what could possibly happen next. Despite a couple of cool obscure experiments in abstract acid techno and a strange granular noise collaboration with the hermit-like Skitter, we've heard little new from this most talented Polish native for quite some time. So five years on from the dissolving of her previous pop-collage band - the cruelly under-exposed Hassle Hound - and the commencement of this more personal journey comes the long-awaited and truly remarkable 'Upper Hell'. Comprising a rounded selection of gorgeous, eclectic and enigmatic tunes, written and arranged in Glasgow, pieced and edited together between diversions such as the scoring of contemporary Polish operas and French gallery installations, then lovingly produced in London by the legendary 'trip-hop' godhead Howie B - their lives colliding in one of those charming "small world" fashions. He's insistently retained the haunting intimacy of Ela's sound, although there are technological and sonic leaps quite beyond the realms of the earlier albums, her compositions discreetly having become more sophisticated and complex. HB deserves kudos for tweaking his knobs to maintain precisely the weight, punch and atmosphere required, enhancing the sheer enticement of it all. I'll forever be impressed at Ela's skills for constructing anything from strange, stealthy and playful acid-y pop to brittle child-like narrative-driven dream-scapes such as the eternally mesmerising 'River Acheron', or the deceivingly downbeat and tear-inducing Crowley-inspired elegy I will always adore - 'We Are One'. There's even a tune I could only describe as ethereal death-disco! But mostly, her wee eight songs here have become even more so the 'movies for ears' she happily declares them to be. It's that oft-smoky, sad and otherworldly voice that's won her so many admirers the world over. A yearning mournful coo that sounds like no-one else. You realise just why important influential folk such as weird cinema's overlord David Lynch, London-loafing Thurston Moore and hugely supportive Glaswegian indie legends The Pastels have enthused about Ms. Orleans over the years - the ever musically astute Moore notably in a recent issue of a certain classic rock magazine wisely stating her as his current favourite UK artist. Upper Hell's producer also hits it on the head when he affectionately suggests she "sings like the sea". So true. Ela's moved her intriguing experimental pop into new territory without belying its idiosyncratic appeal and now the pure emotive pull of her songs seems even stronger than ever. More spacious and dramatic than ever maybe. Considering I considered her early stuff so remarkably well constructed and accomplished regardless...now this bomb has just dropped! With 'The Sky & The Ghost' being the record's attention-grabbing lead 'single' - as delicious as her classic mood-pop delight 'Light At Dawn' from TIC - coming just three songs in and your journey is suddenly curtailed by the sweet surprise of the down-tempo duet 'Through Me' with close pals Katrina and Stephen Pastel, both a heartfelt and naturalistic conclusion, I simply could not fault this album; the title and concept inspired by Dante's complex and ferocious inferno. I've been waiting for UH for years; now its physically here I don't quite know what to do with myself. Even the austere sci-fi brutalist artwork blows my mind. I've listened to 'Upper Hell' dozens of times already and I keep on finding something new and exciting on every excursion. It flies by in a spectral blur of sad android pop, fascinating rhythms, mercurial disco/techno-noir and an undeniably gracious classicism. We're then finished with that tender finale and I'm left a-reeling, if not a little lost and lonely afterwards. Like a treasured friend has just waved us goodbye for an all too-brief visit. . 'Upper Hell' is what happens when artists free-fly and don't let the industry fuck with their art. Ela's music is timeless, organic and quite simply beautiful. Ignore at your peril.
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