Clara Engel utilizes her gently lilting voice, tastefully wavering above each track, without demanding a spotlight or overshadowing the cadre of backing musicians spread across these five tracks of ethereal folk. Each song finds similarity—structurally—to traditional folk music like Wardruna, where the melody is straightforward, simple but not amateurish, repetitive but with embellishment. There is a lot at work within a mere half-hour of music, with hints of Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, Grouper, Swaan Miller, Mi & L’au—though each referential namedrop fails; they are pieces of a larger whole, and nary a one belies a whole image of what is at work here. At first glance, the list of backing musicians seems overwhelming. Saxophone, Theremin, Flute, Accordion, Violin stand out among the list, but none of these instruments convey a sense of “quiet” initially. However, the way each is structured behind the vocals and primary melody makes them almost invisible. Armen Ra’s theremin performance on “Once a White Owl” is arguably the most noticeable, if only because the theremin is such a unique instrument.
The album’s opener, “Swans,” feels funereal, showcasing Engel’s voice as satin-smooth like the journey she describes:
You are carried by swans
Over land and sea
Nothing moves in the trees
Nothing moves beneath
Her voice trails gently from her lips like cigarette smoke. Synth drone pulses beneath acutely picked guitar strings, adding a slight harmony which is embellished with minimal backing vocals. This is, despite the strength of these compositions, Clara Engel’s show, and she is front and center to each composition, though far from demanding. Behind the direct guitar lines, ambient drones hum, expanding the size and space of each track; these songs sound as though they have been recorded in a great hall or cavern, microphone up close to the performer to capture each strum and pluck and enunciation, with only the slightest capture of the reverb which envelops the space. “Uneasy Spirit” is the most direct track, if only for the dominant percussion. The rhythm is steady but sways, spiritually possessive to mirror the subject matter of the track itself. Each hit pulls distinctly against the much more drawn-out vocals, all the while being subdivided by a steadily plucked guitar melody.
“Swallow Me” is carried upon a martial beat, dirge-like in the steady insistence of percussion and bass guitar. Engel allows her vocals to rise a bit more on this track, pushing her delivery both in range and volume. Still, the strength of her singing never wavers. She pleads for her absorption, devourment, and eventual destruction. “Swallow me,” she pleads, “and I’ll give you everything.” Poison or potion, they both only work if ingested.
When “I Love an Evil Queen” opens Side B, Engel carries a slight touch of the blues, both in her truncated guitar playing and her voice. Her vowels and rhotic consonants swing ever so slightly; her consonants carry an edge. When she croons to “let my kingdoms burn, let them freeze, you can do whatever you please,” there is an implication of sensual desire in her delivery.
Visitors Are Allowed One Kiss is a sturdy collection of songs which, thanks in part to their contributors, feel more fully developed and alive than they would if this was simply a voice-and-guitar affair. Engel’s songwriting is nuanced, but direct; her lyrics are dark, full of pseudo-mythical settings that never quite abandon reality in full. Each track carries a sort of dark romanticism to it, and would pair well with fresh snow and red wine. The final product that she presents is an impressive assembly of dark subjects painted in muted tones and subtle drones, with detailed intricacies that stand on their own strengths without exaggeration. This release requires more than a cursory listen, but once it has a chance to simmer, unfold, and get under the skin, these tracks begin to truly reveal their depth.
A2) Uneasy Spirit
A3) Swallow Me
B1) I Love an Evil Queen
B2) Once a White Owl