AMN Reviews: Mariel Roberts – Armament (2021; Figureight Records)

Armament is the third solo cello album from Mariel Roberts, and a follow-up to 2017’s Cartography. Writing about her music is a challenge, as she stretches the notions of what sounds her instrument should and can be used to make. Over four tracks varying in length from about five minutes to over seventeen, Roberts employs traditional bowing and plucking, extended techniques, and electronic processing to create a multi-layered set.

Indeed, it is not initially apparent that this is even a solo cello release. Often her manual playing takes a backing role to waves of noise walls. Melody gives way to texture and abstract forms, even as one might be able to identify a few individual notes that are either following a loose pattern or freely improvised. She is percussive, using the body of the cello to create impacts that blend into scraping, scratching, and squeaking. Accompanying these are loops and echoes, long-held notes, and dense multi-tracked drones.

But what is most compelling about Armament is how well it works as a whole. Recorded in 2019, there is an underlying tension that captures our pre-pandemic malaise and anxiety. Her more aggressive playing parallels that of current events, in an expository rather than approving fashion. In her discordance, Roberts evokes a world that has gone wrong – perhaps an unintentional precursor to the lost year of 2020.

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