Sylvaine is one of my secret (or not-so-secret) musical obsessions, going all the way back to the first time I heard “A Ghost Trapped in Limbo.” I tend to write almost exclusively about albums and artists I am already excited about, but it’s not always that I am immediately struck by an act the way I was struck by Katherine and company the way I was from minute one, and the way that I continue to be every time a new release comes out. Her musical growth and progression is something truly special, with every release being better and more fully realized than the last. Nova is no exception.
The seeds of Nova were planted almost immediately following 2018’s Atoms Aligned, Coming Undone, but obviously with the world in a state of turmoil it took a little while for the album to see the light of day. Katherine Shepard, better known by her stage name Sylvaine, was joined by drummer/live collaborator Dorian Mansiaux in a remote studio in the French countryside, with Shepard handling all other instruments as well as song-writing and arranging. What initially began life as simple acoustic bedroom jams developed, over the course of almost three years, into the epic, haunting and lush post-metal/dream-pop/I don’t even know songs that make up Nova. On her most recent release, Shepard not only progresses her sound, but also taps into a sense of personal and musical rebirth. The title of the album, as well as the cover art, evokes a sense of reawakening and vulnerability, inspired as much by personal loss and world-weary grief as it is by the opposite side of the coin, that every ending marks a new beginning. Musically, Shepard’s vocal chops are even more prominent, and the compositions both average longer play times as well as incorporate more variety. Most importantly, they capture a sense of being a true expression of the artist, not that Shepard is usually one to put on a facade. Nova just feels like the culmination of many years of growth and navigation of the musical world, resulting in a pure distillation of what it means to be Sylvaine.
Nova begins in a way that I can only describe as the most Sylvaine way an album could begin: an extended vocal performance of layered, ethereal melodies that gracefully dance over and around each other. It’s nothing that has ever been featured on a Sylvaine album before (even though Shepard states she has always wanted to include something like it since the beginnings of the project) but it feels like the essence of what her art is about. Truly, her vocal performance on the album is, as always, the centerpiece. From her plaintive wails to delicate croons to retched shrieks, her range and abilities are faultless, as much transportive and soothing as they are mournful and wild. That’s to say nothing of her instrumental prowess, which has taken what I think is a significant leap over the course of her career. What began life as a post-metal/shoegaze amalgam has ended up incorporating a lot of emo, grunge and dream-pop aesthetics, as well as bringing more naked black metal aggression to the forefront, all held down by Shepard’s increasingly flashy guitar, bass and synth work. Lead single “Mono No Aware” is one of the absolute hallmarks of her later work, showcasing every aspect of growth she has shown in recent years. The song closes in on the ten-minute mark but never feels boring or stale, due in large part to Shepard’s energetic and evocative guitar melodies and her layered and varied vocal delivery, effortlessly switching between harsh and clean, no choice feeling inappropriate or unintentional. And that’s what I really appreciate about Nova: everything feels deliberate; every melody, every word, every note feels carefully and lovingly arranged just so.
Nova is one of my most anticipated releases of this year, and it did not disappoint me in any way. I’ve had my eye on Sylvaine for a while, and I am so happy to see every release managing to not only top the one before, but be a genuine reflection of human emotion captured in a moment of time. It’s worth it to sit down and listen to Nova with the best quality headphones you’ve got and really take the time to get in there. There’s a lot to unpack, and you might just get taken away somewhere truly magical.