You have to hand it to Mariana Semkina, when deciding to release a solo album, she eschews her iamthemorning partner Gleb Kolyadin, who just happens to be the PROG Magazine readers No. 1 Keyboard player of 2020 and chooses instead Jordan Rudess who guess what, was voted No.2. No offence Gleb, it would have been an iamthemorning album otherwise. Not content with that, she then plumps for Nick Beggs (bass) and Craig Blundell (drums); Nos. 1 and 2 respectively in the PROG Magazine Readers poll.
By this I am not casting any slur on Mariana as she herself was voted No. 1 Female Vocalist in the same poll, I am merely making a point of how far this young Russian duo have come in their relatively short (by prog standards) career.
Before we go any further, just a bit of housekeeping. No, I’m not spelling her name wrong, Sleepwalking is being released under the moniker Mariana, the original spelling of her name as opposed to the usual Marjana
So, given the pedigree of the assembled musicians, is it as good as it should be, the answer is a resounding YES, and then some! Don’t be expecting keyboard, bass and drum histrionics because there isn’t any, this is the most restrained I have ever heard Mr Beggs and it must have been killing him! This is a collection of very thoughtful, deep and meaningful songs with very sparse arrangements and minimal instrumentation. That sounds very bleak but it lets the focus be on Mariana’s voice which as usual is enchanting albeit beguiling.
Semkina also enlisted the services of the St Petersburg Orchestra which adds a sense of drama to the music and a classical feel when they are paired with the piano of Jordan Rudess on the closing track Still Life.
Lyrically this is a very dark album, all the songs deal in some way with misery, betrayal, death and in a couple of cases suicide. Mariana explained: “It wasn’t my plan to ascribe any profound meaning or concept to creating Sleepwalking, it’s purpose was more personally therapeutic, it was supposed just to help me get through some dark times, and at the end of that period in my life I found myself, not only renewed but with a collection of songs that were too personal to release under any other name other than my own.
“I wanted to use Sleepwalking as a way to translate emotions in the most sincere and unrefined way. No sugarcoating, no filters, just creative, honest thought caught in the moment. Turning those dark times and feelings into pure creative energy, something beautiful, something that has purpose.”
Personally, I think she has nailed it! To paraphrase Mariana, emotional, unrefined, creative, beautiful and something that has purpose just about sums this album up in a single sentence.
Opening song Dark Matter sets the tone for the entire album, restrained acoustic guitar with swirling strings back Mariana’s vocals which drift in and out of the mix almost ghost-like. There is an echoing vocal refrain way way back in the mix that I only heard when listening on headphones, which quite frankly is the best way to listen to Sleepwalking.
Am I Sleeping is more of the same with piano replacing the guitar and some very interesting sounding percussion then it’s all change for Turn Back Time with an urgent almost tribal beat, great use of orchestra and MS showing a more powerful vocal style but still very restrained. This is probably the most commercial sounding song on the album, dare I mention the word ‘single’?
Following Ars Longa Vita Brevis no, not the song by The Nice, comes Invisible, a dark slice of Art Rock with more than a passing nod to Portishead and a song that would not be out of place as a soundtrack to a Gothic Horror movie.
Lost at Sea, the longest song on the album goes somewhere towards lightening the mood with a gentle introduction that could be a singer songwriter of the likes of Joni Mitchell or even Melanie, however, the light mood doesn’t last very long as Mariana describes the thoughts of a woman obviously about to break up with a long term partner, by the end asking the question “…should we go our separate ways?” A question which is almost answered by the opening lines of the next song Skin “I have spent the night peeling my skin off of my body where you touched it …..” A song dealing with self harm after the breakup of a relationship.
Everything Burns echoes that same ethos with the chilling verse; “The suffering is sealed in my bones and I thought it’ll go away if I burn …..So I set myself on fire.” Nice eh?
Mermaid Song, a song about drowning gradually builds in pace until a piano motif of only three notes just hangs in the air at the end sounding almost uncomplete. The completion comes with the opening notes of final song Still Life which also is a completion of the album, almost a summing up as Mariana intones: “And I feel so sad for all the words I’ve said.”
Personally I do think this album has a concept, it is about expunging ghosts of the past and negative thoughts, yes, Mariana Semkina’s own ghosts but we all have similar feelings locked away in our psyche. After listening to the album in its entirety I defy the listener to come away not feeling positive. Sleepwalking is an emotional catharsis and a beautiful piece of art.
Sleepwalking is released by Kscope on February 14 2020