Cucina Povera – Hilja (5 stars)

Cucina Povera – Hilja

Stunning debut from Glasgow's Maria Rossi

Cucina Povera, aka Finnish-born musician and artist Maria Rossi, has been active on the Glasgow underground scene for a while, but her recorded output has been sparse. A smart move; Hilja is one of the most striking debuts I've heard in some time, an album of rare beauty and conceptual rigour. Rossi loops and layers her vocals over minimal synths and environmental recordings, but the music remains fluid and amorphous, never falling into rote repetition.

While I can map out some reference points – Julia Holter's early synth-based work, Akira Rabelais's digitally manipulated Icelandic choral laments, Polish duo WIDT's ambient synth operatics – Rossi's music inhabits its own universe. The combination of her clear, unaffected voice and minimal synth creates a sound that is simultaneously icy and warm, like sunlight breaking over a frozen landscape. On opening track 'Demetra', Rossi uses a Finnish language spoken word loop to suggest a rhythm, the plosives and rhotics creating a mouth percussion effect over the swelling synth pads. Further vocal loops bring a contrapuntal motion, recalling the rounds and canons of 20th century outsider artist Moondog, or the spiritual music of medieval composer and mystic Hildegard Von Bingen. Over this, Rossi improvises an extended vocal line, creating a kind of secular choral music.

Rossi's melodies also carry suggestions of Northern European and Slavonic folk music, and her use of field recordings – stones being knocked together on 'Elektra', the clip-clop-drip of what sounds like a waterwheel on 'Avainsana' – gives her music a further sense of rootedness, although what time and place they're from is unclear. Elsewhere, Rossi uses electronics to warp the dimensions of her music, with the vocal cycles of 'Huhuilu' collapsing into juddering, hissing noise. A gorgeous album: the 2018 SAY Award is Rossi's for the taking.

Out now on Night School.

Hilja, by Cucina Povera

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