As Circuit des Yeux, Haley Fohr has forged a sound of grandiose transcendence over a number of albums now, her huge voice driving her particular blend of krautrock and psych-folk. A well-established figure in the Chicago experimental scene, Fohr’s live sets carry a foreboding allure, her huge, operatic singing summoning numinous forces.
On her 4th LP -io her music at points becomes even grander – somehow – almost overwhelming the listener. At points it is an ordeal – but in a deliberate way.
The album notes warn you to take a break about halfway through the first listen. It’s described as an album to be listened to in the dark and alone so that you can be immersed in what is, ultimately, Fohr’s expression of trauma and grief.
Before the pandemic begun, Fohr lost a close friend. She was unable to write or perform for months in what was her longest fallow creative period since she her first depressive experience aged 17. The pandemic wouldn’t have helped.
“I was haunted by memories in the pandemic,” she says. “As someone with PTSD, memories are all twisted up inside of me in a way that doesn’t help my higher self. Making this album was once again an exercise of trying to relieve myself of some of that darkness in a way that music has always done for me.”
It’s an album that bears the marks of lockdown. She wrote it alone, diverging from her hitherto collaborative approach. Although written fo a 23-piece orchestra, she could only record with six players at a time due to social distancing measures. She worked with renowned jazz, classical and experimental instrumentalists to build the album in layers instead.
From the off, on opening track ‘Tonglen | In Vain’, it’s clear that the sound isn’t diminished as a result, with crescendoing synths and strings echoing a cinema’s pre-film blast of sound. On ‘Vanishing’, the first major single from the album, there is immediate drive, with a punchy violin riff and her swooning vocals sounding almost like a James Bond soundtrack. For an album created out of trauma, ‘Vanishing’ doesn’t so much glide way as announce Fohr’s grief in an almost cinematic way.
If this album is supposed to challenge us by immersing us in her trauma, it does at least pull you in first. The following track, ‘Dogma’, continues as such, with kraut-y drums and spaghetti-western guitar propelling you behind Fohr as she journeys “out of space, out of time, looking for the sight, out of sight, out of mind”. She is being dragged into grief, mastered by it, “like a dog on a leash” and she’s pulling us along with her.
It’s on ‘The Chase’ that the claustrophobia of her mental state begins to overwhelm. Her whispers over unsettling, jangly guitars become subsumed by pulsing drums and discordant organ, suddenly transforming into a powerful operatic croon.
It’s then on ‘Sculpting the Exodus’ that the album reaches its pinnacle. With keyboards rippling like memories floating away, she wonders if “the signal [is] fading”, but the “signal keeps on repeating” as the song grows on a wave of strings. It’s the most fully fleshed track on the album, with the lyrics grappling with grief and memory, trying to release both but at the same time hanging onto them with her all.
On the second half of the album the momentum switches, with her voice taking an even more central role and the instrumentals becoming more sparse. If the first half draws us into her grief, the second expresses her grappling with it.
On ‘Walking Toward Water’ her voices is at its most expressive, as over icy synths she heads into the darkest point of her trauma with the memory of her lost friend at its strongest – she is “breaking as your fingers fit into mine”. On ‘Neutron Star’ she finds solace in conflating the quotidian with the cosmic in her grief, with her friend becoming a star born out of “mass unconstrained”, but gravity “gets dressed” as she heads out from the “table with the hour” leaving Fohr behind, who sings “and now I miss you”.
For an artist who excels in the grandiose, it is these tender moments towards the close of the album that linger. The layers of her grief gradually unfurl until on penultimate track ‘Stranger’ until you are left with just her voice and a piano, for a hushed ballad.
Although it’s not a live album, the track nonetheless leaves you in suspense, as though you could hear a pin drop. As her vocals torturously bellow throughout her colossal range, her pain is laid bare. She returned her grief from the cosmic to the mundane “on 21st street” where she passes a woman “just passing by”, now a “sister” rather than a star.
She closes with folksy ‘Oracle Song’ where over an acoustic guitar her voice enters a strangely normal register. Here her grief is transformed into something else, a warning to her 17-year old self, the previous incarnation of her despair.
“You’ll keep your body and restore your soul six times in your life, each time will be more bold”, she sings.
Having delved into the deepest trenches of her grief, she has now come to accept and transcend it. In luring us into the depths of this trauma, she invites us to do the same.