Philadelphia has a storied past, but in terms of pop culture, the most frequently visited topics are probably Rocky, The Fresh Prince, and those irresistible hoagies. If Christina McGeehan – a.k.a. Christina Ryat, a.k.a. Ryat – has a say in the matter though, you might also add electropop to the City of Brotherly Love’s accolades. Were you to search for an abstract on the city’s colorful history of music, it would likely mention Philly soul and DJ Jazzy Jeff (and maybe fife and drum corps too), but it’s doubtful that the melody-conscious subgenre of electronica – with its sputtering synthesizers and glitchy percussion – would top the list. Ryat’s debut LP could change all that. Like the metal for which it was named, Avant Gold packs plenty of glitter, but it also imposes plenty of snap, crackly, and pop that makes for an elated yet crestfallen nine-song set.
There’s nary a review to be found that doesn’t draw parallels between Ryat and everyone’s favorite Icelander, Björk Guðmundsdóttir (apologies to Jónsi). This stands to reason, given that both women have a predilection for ghostly melodies and sprawling soundscapes, but Ryat lacks Bjork’s quirk, extreme vocal timbres, and capriciousness. The album’s not called Avant-Garde after all, and its tawny cover art serves as a reminder that, beneath all the erratic rhythms and drum machine hiss, lay some killer melodies. To this end, Ryat’s closest compatriots would be other two women who, like McGeehan, have chosen to make music under false appellations – Bat for Lashes and Glasser. McGeehan may not yet have the indie cred of Natasha Khan and Cameron Mesirow, but they all share a penchant for mesmerizing vocals, tribal drum textures, and hypnotic atmospheres.
Working in tandem with boyfriend/multi-instrumentalist/composer Tim Conley, Ryat posits a sound on Avant Gold that’s far more voluminous than you’d expect from a duo. Tracks like “Superficial Friction” and “Bells” are ace examples of this fact; the former pairs a looping violin melody and the unsettling plinks of a piano with club-approved bass and the frenzied twitch of a drum machine, while the latter pits an obsessively looping bass line against stadium-sized percussion and the dulcet chime of Conley’s guitar.
Opening cut “In Your Face,” begins with a confrontational drum beat fitting of the song’s title, followed by the ominous thrum of droning keyboard harmonies and jittery mallet percussion. “You once promised always / to protect me always / on the 4th of July,” sings McGeehan with a mixture of resentment and disappointment. The song is heavily textured with a profusion of synthesizer timbres and electronic embellishments, meaning the ear candy extends well beyond McGeehan’s echo-laden voice and sublime melodies. Up next is “The Gaze,” a track heavy with juxtaposition thanks to the KMFDM-inspired whir of the keyboards and McGeehan’s melismatic vocal rhythms, which are overdubbed into dulcet three-part harmonies.
By far though, Avant Gold’s most arresting moment comes during the somber piano ballad, “We Walk Slow, but as Fast as Their Rush.” Not a far cry from the off-kilter beauty of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” the tune is buoyed by a steadily pulsating groove in 7/8 time. It’s a notable composition for its lack of drums and bass, and directs greater attention to the lush string orchestrations and McGeehan’s tender voice, which at song’s end, is harmonized into startlingly intense major 2nd intervals.
Not every track is as captivating – “The Fish That Lived Out of Water” suffers from chirpy video game effects, while “Time Worn” rides an emotional arc that is blissfully hypnotic but a tad shallow nonetheless. Yet even when Ryat dials down the experimentation factor, these songs still stand tall as a testament to music’s nebulous but undeniable ability to intoxicate. Avant Gold is certainly not going to translate into gold sales figures, but its shimmering luster remains as strong as ever. Like the precious alloy for which it was named, Ryat’s first long-player is immediately alluring.