Review / Lili Refrain – Mana

Lili Refrain is an Italian-born vocalist and multi-instrumentalist based in Rome. Her fifth outing, Mana, presents itself as both a development and departure from previous releases. The experimentation is more focused, the kosmische guitar excursions and metallic sensibilities of earlier material giving way to instrumental terrain that is sparse yet dense. 

The synths here are vast and singular and almost reminiscent of the kind of film scores penned by Clint Mansell or even Oneohtrix Point Never. The rhythms are complex and additive, making use of gongs, glockenspiels, crotales and even Japanese taiko drums.

More than anything, the music serves to frame one main instrument, the boldest on the record, Refrain’s voice. Refrain holds nothing back when showcasing her impressive range and trilled falsetto. In fact, rarely are such abilities found outside conventional classical and opera. Beyond that, she utilises her voice on some tracks as an almost percussive instrument; at other times she delivers verses and chants so ritualistic and otherworldly they are just short of inflicting a curse upon the listener. There are also hidden but not invisible hyper-distorted blackened wails, bestial whispers and even forays into Tibetan throat singing.

Without wanting to understate the record’s other strengths, it is Refrain’s vocal performance that has the most lasting impact; one that across the whole record undergoes a constant metamorphosis both emotionally and stylistically; one that stands as a testament to not just her skills as a singer but also a multi-instrumentalist, her knowledge of different musical disciplines seeming to inform her ideas of stretching the voice to the edge of its capabilities, using it as much as a conduit for emotional force as she does a sonic tool. 

Mana is out today via Subsound Records and can be purchased here.

Words: Rory Hughes

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