Circles of Upper and Lower Hell is the grandest, deepest work to date by Polish-born, Glasgow-based sound artist and composer Ela Orleans. From her beginnings inaugurating a lo-fi, homespun style that has since developed fully into a language uniquely her own, from tentative live outings featuring multiple instruments to a now-masterly command of sound, Orleans has become one of the most consistently surprising musicians of the global underground.
The seventh album under her own name, this expansive vision, loosely based on Dante's Inferno but infused with deep personal experience, incorporates sound art, orchestral textures, synth pop and electronic music to construct a world equally peppered with loss and inspiration. It pulls all the strands of Orleans' previous work together into an epic depiction of turmoil wide in scope but reveling in detail.
The album documents a far more personal approach to conventional songwriting. Previously, the artist's sonic textures have relied on samples cleaved out of context, buried songs beneath warped aural gauze, but Circles blows every element of Orleans's art upwards and further apart. It begins with a masterful, sparse composition, "The Gate," before melting into "You Go Through Me" (featuring Stephen McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell from The Pastels), one of its most direct, aching pop moments. "Ghost and Whispers" is a hit from another universe, a sparkling propulsion light of touch and almost unbearably, ghostly human.
Circles of Upper and Lower Hell is an honest portrayal of a descent – be it personal or metaphorical – and there are times, like on the minimal, string-led "Tower," when the listener feels submerged, alienated from comfort. The album's massive, cinematic scope encorporates rumbling synth textures escalating into celestial harmonies sparkling alongside shimmering melodies crackling with the sort of pathos that Orleans has made her recognizable trademark.