The Flowers of Hell’s ambitious Symphony No. 1 captures the holy splendour of icy wintertime

And it's got a helluva story behind it


When I was young, my father used to take me to the symphony, where I’d sit in my purple skirt with my eyes closed watching the colours and shapes that the music evoked in my mind. Toronto composer Greg Jarvis, who leads trans-Atlantic experimental rock orchestra the Flowers of Hell, experiences a more extreme form of synesthesia: he sees all sounds as abstract images projected around him by his mind, and that multi-sensory perception informs his songwriting. He’s trying to get his pieces to “look” right so that they will sound right. If that sounds trippy, it’s because it is.

Six years in the making, the hugely ambitious Symphony No. 1 was nearly abandoned a number of times by its creator, though some kind words from Lou Reed about 2012’s Odes helped Jarvis finish it. It’s both a departure and a logical extension for the band, who’ve been expanding the scope of their beautiful, ambient music since their Spaceman 3-and-Velvet Underground-indebted debut a decade ago.

Symphony No. 1 was not written, performed and recorded in any conventional way. Rather, Jarvis gathered some 70 hours of audio, and then edited and shaped them into this opus. At one point during the process, while aboard a cargo freighter crossing the Atlantic, he realized he needed a voice to tie it all together, so he brought in Toronto soprano Danie Friesen, whose vibrato weaves through last year’s Aria 51 EP and this entire new album. It’s impossible to imagine what the record would have sounded like without her. (Incredibly, on this same boat trip, Jarvis was held captive by Organisasi Papua Merdeka fighters and had to play ukulele to prove he was a musician, not a spy.) 

Symphony No. 1 is oceanic – slow, billowing waves of sound, underwater cathedrals of light –but also evocative of an ambient Christmas market. It captures the quiet, holy splendour of icy wintertime, of coming up suddenly to a large display of festive lights. Movement 1 is full of regal bombast, while Movement 2 is more Maritimey (violist Abi Fry of British Sea Power, along with violinists Ben Sirois, Rose Bolton and Laura C. Bates contribute to that). Movement 3 is dreamy and mellow, with Heiligen especially restorative before the tossing about and spatial guitar distortion of Shades & Shapes B. Friesen shines in Movement 4’s Lightness.

Despite its rewarding moments and ambitious scope, Symphony No. 1 is not consistently engaging, and probably not the best entry point for those new to the Flowers of Hell. Start instead with Odes, for its use of familiar songs as jumping-off points for exploration, or 2010’s “O” (which is one long song) or 2009’s Come Hell Or High Water. That said, Symphony No. 1 is a strong release, in all its unconventional, billowing, swirling glory.

Top track: Hailigen

music@nowtoronto.com | @sarahegreene

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