- La Force, XO Skeleton
(Secret City Records, digital, vinyl)
One of Canada's most sought-after collaborators has deftly positioned herself as a visionary and the purveyor of a unique style of electro-pop on her second studio album, which shows her daring and vulnerable self-examination. Montréal native Ariel Engle earned a reputation as an innovator on the city's experimental music scene by working with a bevy of recognized bands and artists. She introduced her own solo recording project, La Force, by way of an acclaimed 2018 self-titled album.
Across the nine tracks of XO Skeleton, the follow-up released last month on Secret City Records, Engle ponders her existence with honesty and curiosity, revealing desires and fears through thought-provoking songwriting and expressive arrangements. Along the way, she showcases luscious vocals and a mastery for blending uncommon sounds to alluring effect.
"October," a transfixing and haunting amble through disconnection, wanes to exhaustion before giving way to a breathtaking chorus and a jazzy respite. It's an exquisite number that highlights Engle's range as a singer and her profound way with words, stunning us with her description of "memories folded like laundry" and a heart-wrenching reference to a reality where "dreams of dead and living are the same."
At times on XO Skeleton, the framework Engle constructs seems naturally barren. On the album's title track, a dismal atmosphere exposes the appealing contours and elegance in her voice, which she decoratively shapes to the piece's subdued orchestration and subtle groove.
With the drop of Engle's second record, listeners might find themselves revisiting and appreciating her past contributions as well. Before launching La Force, she and her husband — Andrew Whiteman, a core member and guitarist in the Toronto-based indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene — teamed up as AroarA for In the Pines, a well-received Alice Notley tribute project released in 2013.
A backup vocalist for numerous successful outfits, Engle joined Broken Social Scene for the 2017 recording of the band's fifth album, Hug of Thunder, undoubtedly cultivating new fans from coast to coast and beyond.
Coproduced by Engle and Warren Spicer of Montréal's Plants and Animals, XO Skeleton is a decidedly pensive offering with a shadowy, somber perspective that contrasts with the pep and flair of the La Force premiere.
The album's track "ouroboros" is a torrid, mystifying thrill, vivid and abundant in texture. As the title indicates, it comes to life through a series of revolutions as Engle battles the back-and-forth emotions guiding her along what she seems convinced is an inevitable path: "first I will be angry, then I will feel guilty, then I will feel rage and back again ... rage in a circular way," she sings. Timely and surreal vocal layering gives this track its astonishing, reptilian sinuousness, and its powerful symbolism is evidence of her wisdom and lyrical creativity.
On what is only her second full-length recording, Engle makes a conclusive case that she's more than a thoughtful inventor on the rise, thriving as a risk-taking pioneer who has long held the respect of some of Canada's most successful musicians.
XO Skeleton is available on all digital streaming platforms and can be purchased on vinyl at secretcityrecords.com. La Force plays the PHI Centre in Montréal on November 22.