Both an aural purge of insecurities and a powerful exploration of self-autonomy, multi-instrumentalist Hilary Woods‘ second album Birthmarks is a cohesive set of shadowy soundscapes that smolder with quiet intensity. Darker and sharper in sound when compared to her debut album, Colt, the Irish musician has collaborated with Norwegian experimental noise producer & filmmaker Lasse Marhaug for this latest release on Sacred Bones Records.
Recorded over the course of two years between Galway and Oslo whilst Woods was heavily pregnant, Birthmarks feels like her most personal and powerful record to date. Inspired by field recordings, the images from post-war Japanese & wet-plate photography and the secret life of trees, Woods’ far-reaching influences are what make her art so transcendent.
Opener ‘Tongues Of Wild Boar’ is a foggy, captivating exploration of intense discomfort. From its scratchy dense opening, to its gentle blend of orchestral and electronic elements, it’s a intuitive track that scars and soothes in equal measure. “My body knows I can’t make it out” Woods muses on ‘Orange Tree’, tentatively trying to make peace with her physicality and her surroundings. This need to face her inner fears underscores the record, making it an unsettling, but liberating listen.
The tender ‘Through The Dark, Love’ feels like an intuitive guide through an ambiguous, tumultuous relationship, whilst the sparse instrumentation and the rhythmic humming on ‘Lay Bare’ is deeply comforting. The stretched out saxophone sounds, changing tempo and whispered lyrics on ‘Mud and Stones’ showcase the delicacy with which Woods crafts her songs. They all have a confessional, meditative nature, but her ability to switch from gentle to gritty within a few short seconds never fails to impress.
‘The Mouth’ is one of Birthmarks’ boldest tracks. A fleshy, twisted lullaby about personal hesitation, it’s a somber yet powerful listen, laced with melancholy strings, saxophone and distorted drone noises. The denseness of instrumental ‘Cleansing Ritual’ is unexpectedly soothing too. Its layers of drone noises and distortion could cauterize the deepest of wounds. The eerie, persistent tapping of one key alongside Woods’ hushed voice on ‘There Is No Moon’ could feel desolate, but instead it feels restles, as if she is keeping herself awake with the urgency of that repeated note.
Though quiet in terms of volume, Birthmarks is an abrasive, primal, charged offering that allows Woods the space to navigate uncertain emotional territory, highlighting her strength and resilience as an artist. Though fueled by uncertainty, it’s a carefully constructed record that provides space for healing and acceptance.
Photo Credit: Joshua Wright