I listened to the entirety of Tölt, the long-awaited debut LP by Ottawa’s Flying Hórses, approximately six times before finally understanding that I would hear a different narrative on each pass. First I walked through Gormenghast, then through Cirith Ungol, but also through large meadows that could have been Hyrule. The music called “post-chamber” by two of the city’s most interesting musicians have created a bestiary of dark and beautiful creatures, deadset on being released August 15.
Cellist and composer Raphael Weinroth-Browne is part of several prolific bands that play a range of neo folk, classical and experimental chamber music. He said that Tölt would surprise most people who were familiar with Jáde Bergeron’s original compositions that she’s often played live over the past few years. I have to concede he wasn’t just hyping me up—this isn’t the same trip to the “Dollhouse” or ride around the “Carousel” that we’ve heard before.
And it’s not just the preeminent production by Birgir “Biggi” Jón Birgisson of the Icelandic Sundlaugin Studio that has brought on this change. The idea of the album still hinges a collage of childlike wonder that Bergeron has been exploring through music boxes and devotional bells, but it goes further now.
There are sonatas for cello accompanied by Bergeron’s piano, and what sound like piano/celesta duets. Sometimes the pairing of cello to piano is replaced with bells or chimes that Bergeron plays in what she credits as “sacred places” in Montreal and Reykjavík.
A song named “Spiladósir” begins much in the same way as some of the vignettes in this 14-track album but, unlike its shorter cousins, it fires off a dark and ambient rush of energy. It grabs you with a dissonance of music boxes, some even lending their mechanical crank to the metal storm.
On one listen, these shadowy songs reminded me of the score to 2014’s RPG Child of Light, composed by Béatrice Martin a.k.a. Coeur de Pirate. The orchestral arrangements by Gémeaux-nominated composer Anthony Rozankovic give the role-playing fairy tale story of that game a beautiful depth. However, listening to that music alone feels as though something is missing (a palette of pixels?) whereas an amble down Flying Hórses, with no supporting images or words, fills the listener with northern histories, nostalgia, and creatures far stranger and dazzling than pegasi.
The title track “Tölt” does not exactly trot, the most precise translation would be an ambling gait that is instinctive in Icelandic horses. It’s different than a gait though, and as a movement for horses it’s known to vary quite quickly.
I enjoy ambient background music as much as the next writer, but I’m also a sucker for liner notes and lyrics. Here, the song titles create a 14-word story that spans three languages: English, French & Icelandic. I’ll add a fourth, the German, since Tölt is a Bildungsroman—a coming-of-age story. It’s also a dream-like ride into dark places that are lit up by Bergeron’s vision of innocence and memory.
“Oubliette” is a dirge, maybe even a requiem. It’s the longest track of the 14 and does not conclude the album with a ribbon nicely tied at the end—it ends the album more than the final track “107” because it builds into an ellipsis, followed by a question mark that seems to say, “and the light shone so brightly that it blinded, covered everything, and suddenly there was—”