Heroes don’t usually cover up their appearance with a black mask. Sure, a white bandana may be wrapped around their forehead, or sport an impressively long, flowing cape. The real heroes don’t need such bravado; the real heroes are the men and women who risk everything to save the lives of others; the fire fighters who fearlessly tackle a red hot blaze that licks a fiery tongue at everything it can, a lover who sacrifices all that they have out of love alone, someone you can look up to, or the good Samaritan seen helping someone to their feet after an upsetting accident. It’s important that the phrase ‘my hero’ remains sanctified, and that the icon doesn’t diminish with frequent repetition, or thanks in part to the superhero blockbuster onslaught that we must face every summer.
Heroically, Sarah Neufeld’s instrument stands alone, in the face of a raging wind. Her debut is a sensitive heroine, the bow striking at a voluptuous, vulnerable velocity against the darker forces of the night. In an era where the anti-hero is disturbingly in vogue – when it’s cool to be the bad guy – Sarah Neufeld’s heroine remains true to herself and to her quieter, introspective characteristics, and she is ever braver for it. You don’t need to be a macho lifeguard with a six pack, or even to think of life as a competition, a challenge, to be considered a hero (although a six pack may help you to land the girl). Music most definitely is not a competition, although unfortunately, for the minority, it is regarded as such – usually, it’s the notorious teenage shredders who are permanently engaged in their own, eternal battles, a duel against one another and against the ever-increasing bpm count. You don’t need to have a deep voice, raked through the gravel – like that to rival Batman’s often inaudible growl. Instead, her fragrant whispers are colours of peach and amber against the black-and-chrome lights of the inner city. You just need to be yourself.
Sarah Neufeld’s violin is at times tested with the dark; the dominant attraction to western destruction that has been enacted a thousand times, both in the mass-publication of daily newspapers and the movie studios, ever since they realised that destruction sells. This was pre-9/11, too. Her violin resists the temptation, the urge, to be the anti-hero, and as such she doesn’t fall victim to the world and her sinful pleasures. Just standing up to peer pressure alone can be a strain – her violin smashes the chains of expectation and instead becomes a beacon, a positive trendsetter swimming against the tide, for others to follow if they so desire. On harmonic wings, she rises and rises, unafraid of whatever lies ahead; undaunted, and all without a mask to cover her emotions. If anything, her emotional expression of grace, power and passion lives in clear sight, so much so that it is smeared upon her music like the face paint of a well loved villain.
Montreal’s Sarah Neufeld may be known as a member of Canada’s Arcade Fire, but the violinist has heroic intentions as a solo artist. Her violin-centred compositions are as brave as a hero – made even more impressive is the fact that Hero Brother is her debut release. She starts her journey at her tower, never fazed by what many would see as an intimidating prospect through the deserts of life. Her vocals echo over the rocky earth, strands of vocal expression that reach up to the stormy, cherry coloured nebula above. She doesn’t cower when faced with the frightening; she passes her first encounter with destiny.
The unexpected stomp is a hard-hitting punch, pressing itself with brute force against a violin that tries to bat it away with energetic swoops and swirls, sometimes propelling itself forward with enough ferocity that the bow conducts the hair-raising friction of static electricity, engaged in a fierce battle with the percussive enemy, each beat an extra nail hammering into a wooden coffin. She is left reeling, face down in the dirt.
On ‘Dirt’, the hairs on the back of the neck stand up like warriors rising to their feet, drawing shiny swords as the enemy charges. Her violin squeals with a gritty determination, creaks with a rocky, grinding and uneven feel. Steadily, her violin pushes against the desolate abandon, breathing black ground, with a steely resolve that causes her to rise up.
The pockets of transcendent drone are thin bubbles of oxygen that make for a healthy meditation on the upcoming battle; her passionate playing is the inner fire that never goes out. In the dim, her playing is a light that shines brightly, cutting through the peril as easily as a bow dissecting the rhythmic notation.
Her heroine pierces the fog-lit atmosphere, the rumbles that encourage deeply textured, grey billowing clouds to creep up, rising out of the bleak, shaded winds; a fugitive of a figure that stands on the edge of preconceived harmony and unscripted improvisation. Her violin drifts peacefully, incredibly open in the sparse void of the atmosphere. The undercurrent of a deep drone passes between two transitions effortlessly, gently releasing and then tugging on the underlying tension like a turbulent mood-swing in full flow. It notches up the intensity minute by minute. Her bow slides over the strings with a smooth, fluid touch, as if it were a silky cape carried by the wind.
‘Wrong Thought’ turns to ‘Right Thought’, contrasting her instrument’s own inner war with quick, scraping turns of thought and action. Her violin runs into multiple corners as she tries to escape, rhythmically darting this way and that, twisting, turning, ensnared. ‘Right Thought’ is much more at ease – clearing a way through the danger, the clutter of confusion dealt with through her thoughtful strokes, a slower harmony and a recognisable melody to latch onto. Still, her playing is exceptional, carving through the rhythms with poise, purpose and red-tinted flare. Her violin reaches blurry speeds capable of beating the very own man of steel in a race, past the limits, past the sound barrier, leaving the enemies to fall in shock, thumping to the ground one by one, crumpling against the concrete as hard as the stomp of her feet; below her feet.
The recording location of an underground parking garage adds some refreshing exhalations, the spacious acoustics so vast that they could be emanating from the tip of a chasm; perhaps it was intended as a trap, set unawares by a new, interim leadership. There is no cliffhanger, but the quality is such that you’ll have to wait at least a couple of years for a sequel. Her vocals on the coda, ‘below’, are the beautiful rising flame of daybreak. Her violin, the heroine, is petite in stature but brave in heart – her performance alone is worthy of the final victory.