Review: Lili Refrain ‘Mana’

It’s been almost a decade since Lili Refrain last put out a full-length, the criminally underrated Kawax. A tangled, ritualistic exploration of math-rock, loop pedal mesmerism, and her unique voice, neither shaman nor siren but somehow encompassing qualities of both, it was unlike anything before or since. The single-track EP ULU from a couple of years back hinted at more spiritual explorations to come, but it still doesn’t quite prepare a listener for what she has achieved on Mana. By largely abandoning her guitar and delving further into the other aspects of her sound, she has created a rich and vivid world of sound and voice that once again shows that she is a unique creative force.

Lili Refrain 'Mana'

Kyoku is the first real evidence of the development at work, throwing every trick in the book into a single cut and somehow making it work. A bright, dancing synthscape is built up layer by layer, sparse percussion punctuating the phrases while Refrain’s voice rasps, gasps, and chants to a soaring climax. Though her vocal work does draw a few comparisons, with both Meredith Monk and Kenji Kawai’s lush choral work on Ghost In The Shell springing to mind, her skill at using her voice as percussion and melody gives it a peculiar freshness.

With Ichor new avenues begin to take shape, lush drones and delicately powerful vocal work moving away from layered grandeur and into a realm that’s both spiritual and operatic. Refrain uses low throat singing and her reedier head voice to craft a narrative that conveys beauty, tragedy, and passion, language barriers be damned. The move into Sangoma plunges the listener headlong into darkness, a brooding work that could probably score Dante’s Inferno (as envisioned by Dario Argento, obviously), and the sharp, throbbing percussion of Mami Wata has a feverish energy that outstrips the muted synth drones that ebb and flow with Refrain’s whispers and cajoling cries.

Refrain uses low throat singing and her reedier head voice to craft a narrative that conveys beauty, tragedy, and passion…

And then there’s Travellers. As the longest piece, it’s an obvious standout but it’s also the one track that feels like a bridge to Refrain’s past works. More guitar-focused than the rest of Mana, it’s electric in every way. From the pounding throb of toms and Refrain’s distorted rasps to that massive synth beat that worms its way around a simple but effective riff, it manages to harness the immediate and intuitive nature of the record but amplifies it, adding grit, fire, and bite. The change in tone is perhaps a little much, especially given that there’s still the dreamy synth-drone of Earthling to close out the album on a lofty note, but it’s forgivable just on account of how well it manages to work.

Mana feels like a record for the fans, in that almost none of it comes as expected. It stretches Refrain’s voice to its fullest, showing off a range that’s stunning to hear. When that is paired with songwriting that so often moves at strange, dreamy circles while still maintaining a clear vision, it becomes transformative. Seriously, if you can hear these songs and not be transported to somewhere brighter, more magnificent than your living room or morning commute, you might want to listen a bit more closely.

Label: Subsound Records
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Scribed by: Dave Bowes