The importance of risk-taking in the arts is difficult to exaggerate. If only to remain interesting, or even to remain interested, artists have to constantly try new things—to explore ideas and tactics that are as likely to fail as they are to lead to breakthroughs. Such gambling is essential, so when an artist—especially a fringe artist such as Maciek Szymczuk—makes a misstep, it’s difficult to hold it against them.
Szymczuk’s body of work stretches back more than a decade and includes plenty of bright spots such as 2015’s Clouds and 2005’s utterly quirky Romantic Piano for Lovers. On Music for Cassandra, however, something seems to be missing. Every track is compositionally sound, but seldom does any of it display more than mere competence. There are sparks of interest scattered throughout the disc, such as the glossy rhythm of track three, “The Seer,” or the ghostly keyboard line that lurks through “Spoil of War.” But even these elements are unadventurous compared to Szymczuk’s other work. On Music for Cassandra, Szymczuk has set aside the glitches, clicks, and samples that have served him so well and taken up more standard drum and synthesizer sounds instead. This choice may be at least half of the reason for the overly safe demeanor of this album, with the other half being the absence of any vocals, most notably the charmingly accented voice of Joanna Kustwan-Szymczuk, which has appeared on a good portion of Szymczuk’s previous work.
The album is further weakened by engineering problems, most likely compression artifacts, that lend a synthetic feel to the sound. If this music is meant to be contemplative, the lack of depth and warmth is a hindrance. This effect is at its worst on “Let My Life Be Done,” where a synthesized reed tone takes on a distracting ringing quality that undermines the entire arrangement. This is a shame because though these tracks may lack for innovation, they are—as conceived—at least pleasant and listenable. The imperfect presentation of the sound can be ignored for the most part, but when the engineering flaws come to the forefront, it becomes difficult to stay absorbed.
The title of the disc as well as the tracks refer, of course, to the story of Cassandra: an underappreciated tale from Greek mythology. The exploration of classical themes is never a bad thing. However, without the support of strong music, even a high-minded concept album is apt to go, like the prophesies of Cassandra, unheeded.
01) Serpents’ Tongues
02) She Who Entangles Men
03) The Seer
04) Helen’s Golden Veil
05) In the Belly of the Weapon
06) Spoil of War
07) Infinite Sadness of Being Right
08) Let My Life Be Done
09) Last Lament in Death
10) I Am Free