Kate Bush. Chelsea Wolfe. Verena von Horsten. There is a wonderful tradition of ambitious, brooding art rock songstresses, and I feel a unique satisfaction whenever I hear a project of this kind. Ethereal and darkly atmospheric, Verena von Horsten’s style is a perfect match for her voice, every bit as haunting and otherworldly as you might expect from her if you’re any bit familiar with either of the other singers I mentioned.
Alien Angel Super Death fulfills many of the expectations I’d built up when I heard Verena von Horsten compared to these and other stars like PJ Harvey and Björk. This is Verena’s second album, and not one to have been inspired without an immense amount of pain. Though not a concept album in the strictly narrative sense, AASP was introduced to me as a sort of reflection piece based on the suicide of her brother. She used this personal nightmare as a springboard for this ten song cycle, exploring the notion of suicide and the way it’s reacted to in society. Perhaps it’s morbid to say, but this background was the most intriguing aspect of Alien Angel Super Death going into hearing the album, and not because of the subject or the tragedy behind it. Rather, this was promising because it proved from the starting line that Verena was willing to reveal her intimate struggles so openly with listeners.
That sincerity would help an artist no matter how much talent they could boast. For Verena, that honest inspiration is backed up by solid songwriting skills and a clear expertise when it comes to bringing her material to life. She’s referred to her music as “synth rock”, and listening to Alien Angel Super Death it’d be a tough sell to argue otherwise. Essentially pulling out rock guitar and replacing it with retro-futuristic synthesizers, Verena immediately lends herself a fertile template to realize her songs. It’s not surprising that von Horsten’s tone here is grim and brooding; what strikes me more is that she’s managed to take this dark subject matter and dredge out remarkably catchy hooks. Verena’s voice constantly navigates the fence between sounding angelic and the gruff, lived-in quality that defined a singer like Janis Joplin Drawing most of her sound out through the combined efforts of her voice and synthesizer, she manages to create an entire emotional arc. There’s no space for something truly cheerful here, but as anyone who’s gone through a significant loss and attempted recovery knows, grief can manifest itself as many emotions at different stages.
All else aside, there’s a lot to be said for von Horsten’s synthesizer fixation. Any of these tracks could have just as easily been written for the guitar, but the neon shimmer of the synths gives AASD an indelible 80s vibe that may well count as a selling point of its own. Guitars are egotistical by nature and usually demand a listener’s attention. In keeping guitars out of the spotlight, she leaves the most room for her voice. If her vocals ever have a hard time standing out from other post-Kate Bush art rock ladies, she always excels on the instrumental front. Her DIY production is richly layered with well-considered synth lines that know when to ebb and flow with her vocals. Where “Sweet Lullabye” might reel back to let in Verena’s haunting voice, “What You Say” does the opposite with equal conviction, flooding the mix with playful chaos. It is all too rare to hear a solo artist bring such a well-rounded presentation to her material.
This is really, really good art pop. All I’ve heard recently in this style that realy compares is the excellent All is One by Sophe Lux and the Mystic from last year. It takes skill and talent to write the music on AASP. It takes more than that– you might call it real courage– to open your most intimate self to an audience like Verena von Horsten has here. Even as an underground artist, she boasts a wide appeal. Dedicated listeners will find a torturous grieving process manifested in synths and uncertain poetry. Casual fans will get their fill of solid hooks and memorable songwriting.