Hearts of Space
HOS 11417
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Eight years after Star of the Sea, Stellamara follows up their top-selling debut with The Seven Valleys. The ensemble's name derives from stella (Latin for "star") and mara (Gaelic for sea") and sports the vocals of Sonja Drakulich who grew up in L.A.'s Armenian community, studied under Tatiana Sarbinska -- the voice teacher for Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares -- and now teaches workshops on Singing Through Awareness in the Bay Area. Multi-instrumentalist Gari Hegedus plays an impressive plethora of stringed instruments. These include the oud, divan saz, baglama, cura, Turkish banjo, violin, viola, mandocello, sarod and tambura. On this album, Susu Pampanin and Tobias Roberson contribute a variety of Middle-Eastern and African hand drums, Beth Bahia Cohen further strings and Jaime Paulos keyboards and sound design.

The Seven Valleys is a tribal soulmate to Azam Ali of Vas as well as related to Axiom of Choice. There are strains of Irina Mikhailova and Lisa Garrard of Dead Can Dance as well as echoes of Melchite and Byzantine song. Moorish and Medieval elements intermingle with Turkish maqams to erect mysterious minor-mode soundscapes that conjure up images of Balkan monasteries, Bulgarian plainsong or slow-motion Arabian desert dances. Though minimalist in concept, the execution of languidly moving multi-dubbed vocals, sonorous drums, low drones and tasteful synth ambience creates a dense, heavy and intense atmosphere. It's punctuated by Arabian violin played simultaneously with fundamental and flageolet overtones or darkly glittering oud, all lazily drifting like Opium dreams yet more dense than daytime realities.

As were prior Hears of Space releases in their WorldClass branch, audiophile production values and sonics are of very high quality. Wonderful compositions, great playing, countless tonal nuances from so many different instruments, Sonja's enchanting soprano voice and the nearly trance-like hypnotic allure of the entire generously long album make it a very easy top recommendation. It would come as no surprise to see certain tracks eventually licensed for incorporation into movie soundtracks due to their evocative sensuousness. But no attached moving images are required. You'll see plenty of your own just traversing the seven valleys.