As you listen to Tess Roby’s debut album Beacon, which releases Friday, April 20, you get a pretty quick realization: It’s an instant masterpiece that occupies a space unencumbered by the strictures of time or fad. Roby opens a window into her heart and soul in an authentic and meaningful way, revealing an engaging level of wisdom and vulnerability.
That we even get a chance to fathom stepping outside of it all — with all of the distractions we have in our world — is a bit of a miracle. However, Roby easily gives us the opportunity to do just that, even if the impetus is, as I’ve read, her father’s death. The Montreal-based musician’s minimalist avant-pop compositions — including the title track and the exquisite “Plasticine Hills” — center on Roby’s Nico-esque voice and aerial synthesizers, and her brother Eliot’s delightfully clean guitars, all driven by simple drum beats. Together these parts form rather elaborate pieces that craft a space and experience that allow for the distractions to just melt away. Roby has insight to share, pain to expel, and beauty to highlight, and you will want to be there for every single second of it.
Beacon and its eight constituent parts represent music for those moments when you turn off your phone and put it some place where it won’t bother you — where you forget about it. Your TVs and computers are off, if they even exist at all anymore. It’s for those times when you just stop for once and experience the enchanting nuances in the kinetic synth arpeggios and sprinkles of Volcano Choir-esque guitar that surround Roby’s compelling voice as she unfurls her compelling narrative.
Roby has freed us from the clutter and allowed us to breathe, be present, and be open.
In that way Beacon is a true and lovely counter to much of today’s pop — a lot of which I like, mind you — that often comes off as if it’s constructed as a soundtrack to overly curated social media updates. By building a foundation of minimal but not simple songs, Roby has freed us from the clutter and allowed us to breathe, be present, and be open.
A glimpse and a Revelation
Much of the world first got wind of Roby’s talent via the Ballad 5 EP, released in early 2017 via Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better label, to which she has been signed for more than a year. The EP, especially the title cut that resurfaces on Beacon, offer an excellent glimpse at Roby’s talent and capabilities. It has tempered and tight guitars, contemplative synths, and the abstract, melodic vocal stylings of Beacon, buoyed by a gated drum machine with retro flare. But it was only a glimpse.
It is “Catalyst,” the lead single of Beacon that was released late last month, that reinforces the elements of Roby’s work in the way I described earlier in this piece: you’re yanked right out of the noise and placed somewhere in which the Reichian artistry overcomes you and demands your comprehensive attention. You’re no match for the force of this cinematic but nevertheless intimate experience.
One of the most powerful cuts on Beacon is “Tripling,” a relatively upbeat number with a potent undercurrent of propulsive melancholia. A ruminative build from just Roby’s vocals and some legato organ musings are joined by a light-but-steady bass-drum heartbeat and tempered guitar atmospherics that add color to the compositional palette. But we’re not at the crucial point yet. As the chorus hits and Roby begins to sing about how the subject of the song is “tripling/tripling/in my mind,” there’s a crystalline synth that effectively trickles decidedly into the mix and the hi-hats take on a tripling effect. Eliot’s measured fret work flies off the axe with precision.
As she effortlessly unleashes her gorgeous vocals, Roby expresses how the more she tries to get someone close to her off her mind, the stronger is that person’s adhesive quality. They stay until there’s a compounding effect in which her mind is overrun with this person. The music does a fantastic job of articulating all of this, while also seemingly offering a bit of hope that the endless tripling will ultimately result in her mind’s ablution.
Another notable song is “Air Above Mirage,” which vibes in the realm of Berlin School meets the Lost in Translation soundtrack, as if the ethereal mists of Ashra and catchy intimacy of Squarepusher’s “Tommib” have combined to form some new, tightly woven phenomenon powered by an airy resolve.
It opens with tickled wind chimes and a white-noise gale before the chimes transform into bright synths that embark on a cascading journey of arpeggiations supporting a focused, celestial melody. Then enters Roby with a sort-of mantra: “One thing keeps me going.” As the penultimate song, preceding the dark closer “Borders,” “Air” serves in some ways as one of two options for ending the tale of Beacon. “Air” has a feeling of trepidation, to be sure, but it nevertheless instills a sense of hope that seemed plausible in the opener, the delightful “Given Signs.” “Borders,” though, is a dark and sacred opus with spectral guitars that fly through the air, ominous fat synths that keep the guitars on a leash, and Roby’s haunting intonations that fill a reverberated, candlelit chamber. It gives the record a somber close. It is a requiem.
In eight songs over little more than 30 minutes, Roby demonstrates a profound ear for sophisticated musicality, a strong voice for authentic and engaging lyrics, and a particular ability to craft compelling song structures that allow us to be focused and actually present. This is an extraordinary start for a young artist who will no doubt be letting us into her world through many beautiful and rewarding releases to come.