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The voice is probably the greatest instrument mankind has ever been given. We may have reached a point where we can synthesise any sound we could possibly want and use electronic trickery to tug at our emotions, but the sound of someone's voice still has an undeniably powerful effect. Whether that's the hard-living, down-at-heels growl of Tom Waits or the hushed, heartbreaking voice of Billie Holiday, there's an empathetic connection that we've never been able to replicate any other way. There are artists who understand this and use the power of voices to full effect. On Sympathy composer and singer GABI uses her voice to conjure an ethereal realm, one in which sadness, pain, love and reverence are tangible elements wrought in the sound of another person's voice.

From the very opening of 'Koo Koo', through to the dark majesty of 'Hymn', Gabrielle Herbst's voice takes centre stage, whilst the use of loops allows her to also include her vocals as another instrument amidst guitars, violin and vibraphone. The album opens a cappella, with GABI's soaring vocal refrain of "I wait for you" transmitted as a warm invitation, an offer of friendship. Her voice is gorgeous, a simple layer of reverb is present, as though recorded in an empty room, something simple and plain. Soft chimes are introduced and GABI's vocals are double-tracked over one another, each repeated refrain panned alternately to the one that preceded it. Barely a minute of Sympathy has passed and already the effect is mesmerising - GABI's voice rises and falls swaying left and right as though lulling us into dream so as to better experience the sonic space she has crafted.

The remainder of 'Koo Koo' is a calming, if somewhat melancholic number in which GABI's voice is transformed into the lead melody, looping over mid-tempo vibraphone. The looped vocals continue the hallucinatory tone of the introduction whilst the vibraphone lends a magical atmosphere to the track. Yet GABI's vocals, now repeating "In the fire / I want you" no longer sound as inviting, they seem longing, perhaps a little regretful and you find yourself wondering if this is a desperate pean to an old lover or an individual whom the singer wishes would return their love. The lyrics are ambiguous enough to open up several interpretations, how you - the listener - decides on the meaning will depend on your circumstances as you approach the record and what the vocal performance suggests to you.

There's a theatrical element to GABI's vocals, an element of performance that comes from her background in opera. Whilst not reaching for an operatic style on the record, the level of control that comes from that musical form, as well as GABI's tutelage in voice and composition at Bard College, is what drives the narrative and thematic threads of Sympathy. Take for example 'Da Void', which immediately follows 'Koo Koo'. GABI's vocals don't always reach for the higher notes of her other tracks, but instead predominantly opt for a hushed timbre, with her delivery veering closer to spoken word. Throughout she sounds mournful, delivering a crushing sadness to the opening refrain of "if the story could be changed / if I could change my old name" and the image of water spiralling down a drain. The song proceeds to list aspects and objects of a person, again we are led to assume a lover, but that same timbre and the delicacy of the items listed suggests an intimacy lost - something that seems to be referenced in later lyrics where GABI repeats "I wish I could hear you breathing" and "I wish that you could stay."

The mournful vocals are backed by a sparse, sombre arrangement - the opening and closing moments of the track utilising an electronic ping, like that of heart-rate monitor, set against slow strings. The middle of the track brings in vibraphone, warm guitar and deeper bass notes, but for all the brightness these instruments offer, they sound at odds with GABI's vocals, which now strain for those higher notes. We've already seen her full range in 'Koo Koo', but here reaching similar heights takes a great effort as though the very act of singing is painful itself.

Sympathy hurts. The emotional response to the record is physical, visceral, and yet there's something oddly calming about it. Often this is down to the sense of space afforded to the vocals and instruments. Often records pack themselves so dense with detail that it can feel almost claustrophobic - this isn't necessarily a bad thing - but on Sympathy the production offers a cavernous, spacious sound that provides a level of comfort. The reverb applied to vocals in particular gradually increases as the albums progresses, as though moving from a cold barren room to the halls of a grand cathedral. GABI's performance as well - whilst it's certainly haunting at times - is simply beautiful, adding colour and humanity to the more mysterious musical arrangements.

It's clear that GABI and her co-producers Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Paul Corely understood the need to draw the listener's focus to GABI's vocals, even if sometime the lyrics are difficult to discern (or even nonsensical like on 'Love Song'). So Herbst's vocals are set right at the front of the mix, with a clarity that gives the sensation of the singer speaking directly into your ear. At times, like on 'Love Song' or the opening of 'Mud' it's as though you can feel GABI's breath on the back of your neck, such is the intimacy provided by the performance and the recording which captures the artist's voice in stunning detail. In 'Mud' this focus on vocals helps to anchor the song amidst stabs of violent violin and viola that add a sense of swirling chaos, of things falling apart.

'Mud' and following track 'Falling' are two of Sympathy's strongest tracks. The combination of vocals and these sparse, yet textured arrangements of strings, vibraphone and guitars reach fantastic, thrilling heights. In 'Mud' the push and pull between GABI's delicate vocals and the more abrasive instruments create an atmosphere fraught with tension - though the nature of which is unclear. Beautiful, bright vibraphone notes sound out over the falling scrap of violin and a clatter that sounds like an electric guitar being knocked and plucked at random. GABI is an oasis amongst chaos and as the song, and indeed the album progresses, she draw the listener in ever closer, bring them into her other-worldly realm.

The track ends with a cataclysm of drums and the quick pulsing of electronic feedback, before subsiding into a ringing noise and the heavy breathing of Herbst, as though the act of committing the song to record has drained her of energy. Recording was likely an exhausting experience, with open ended recording sessions allowing Herbst and her band to explore the possibilities of each track and embracing abstraction. GABI's songs started life as solo vocal pieces, built up using loops - which continue throughout the record circling around the listener, falling over one another to create a dreamlike vibe - before being transformed into larger, more evocative works with her assembled band. The sense of freedom that came from recording in that way is detectable on the record, with songs having slower, more natural progression and often looping back in on itself. The effect is like the improvisation of jazz slowed down by a thousand degrees, suitable variances and gradual build-up of layers. Though the album isn't entirely averse to sudden, surprising shifts.

In 'Falling' two such shifts take place within the first few minutes. The track opens a cappella with a loop of GABI's vocals providing a springy melody, before suddenly introducing skittering strings and deep, rolling electronic bass. It provides a cinematic edge that oddly recalls the deep notes of an Hans Zimmer score. Even more surprising is the way that this sets the stage for a mellow verse of warm strings, steady bass and some gorgeous, muted vibraphone. It's an enthralling moment, almost pastoral in the serenity it presents as GABI sings of sunflowers and water.

It's an image at odds with much of the album, but marks a softening in the album's brittler sounds in the latter portion. 'Fleece' in particular, renders a narrative between people so intimate that seconds feel drawn out as the singer observes the details of a lover - an eye opening, the rhythm of their breathing. It recalls the images presented in 'Da Void' but here there is a note of optimism in GABI's voice. The backing focuses in on light piano during the verse expanding out to stirring strings, trombone and rolling percussion. There's an element of Sigur Ros' Takk in the arrangement, a sense of grandeur, particularly in the closing minutes when the trombone takes centre stage. Playing out against soft rushes of electronic noise, it segues into a short, but beautiful piano coda and finally GABI's voice calling out.

"Stay with him," GABI repeats throughout the opening of 'Home'. Who these words are directed at is unclear, it could be advice to a friend or perhaps a thought vocalised. The vibraphone melody is cyclical, as though this simple idea is being turned over and over in someones mind, unpicked and examined. What does it mean to stay with him? Should I stay with him? I will stay with him. The song transitions to stirring strings, snatches of violin over waves of electronic feedback and GABI's voice rising up through this surface noise. At first the utterances are nonsense, but slowly words become clear. "I'm home," she says, repeating the words over and over as the backing seems to lift slightly. The electronic drones, still add a certain melancholy, but there's an acceptance, perhaps an excitement in the way the strings and vocals rise. The song cycles around to it's opening again, but introduces more percussion - is this the same as before? Has anything changed? And if it has is it for the better?

The album ends by drawing our attention away from GABI's vocals and more towards the strings that have existed in the background. An optimistic, stirring opening gives way to a more reserved, reverential tone as GABI repeats the word "Hallelujah". The reverb is much thicker giving the sense that GABI is singing within the nave of a gothic cathedral. It's at this moment you really become aware of how the music and the production has slowly revealed this sense of a growing, ever shifting space - sound defining architecture. As the vocals drift away, the strings and percussion begin to lock themselves in a violent confrontation, at times attempting to drown one another out, at others pausing for breath before re-entering. The vocals briefly return, but the album is closed by high-pitched strings and soft ambient washes before fading into silence. Beauty and chaos subside into nothingness, the world of Sympathy cleansed in a fire of sound. Perhaps this is the same fire GABI's voice rose from in opening track 'Koo Koo'? Is this really an ending, or just another moment in a never ending cycle?

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