In the Earth's Fading Light

Album review by Art Edelstein, Times Argus

Stykos' 'In the Earth's Fading Light' could be the best album this year.

If Kristina Stykos' new album "In the Earth's Fading Light" was on vinyl I'd have already worn it out. Luckily, it's a compact disk and should be good for a long time to come. Ever since I received a copy over a month ago it has been spinning in my car's CD player. "Fading Light" is perhaps the best new album I have heard this year by anyone, and I'm a heavy consumer of music.

Bruce Springsteen may have gotten all the hype for his latest effort "Devils and Dust," but for my money Stykos has written far better songs, delivered them with wonderful style, and can play the pants off of the King of Asbury Park. What is surprising about this album is that it is the work of a full-time mother of three who says her main occupation is landscaping. Stykos' name is anything but household, and she says she's not looking for a career in music. But I hope this review will encourage her to hit the road and bring her music to a much wider audience than Vermont can offer.

Stykos, who lives in Chelsea, has fashioned a guitar-based album of heartfelt songs and interesting instrumentals with Celtic and European overtones that are mature in content and composition. Her guitar playing, is confident, extremely well executed, and very engaging. The musicians who accompany her on most tracks in this 16-song album play with inspiration, and the caring they must feel for Stykos is palpable.

Now, here's the kicker. Stykos, who had released one poorly received vinyl album 16 years ago, did all the recording and production herself in her living room. This is an album that sounds so good that anyone not reading the liner notes would figure she used $10,000 microphones and hired the best studio that many thousands of dollars could buy. The lesson here is that good equipment goes only so far. What's really needed to produce a top-notch compact disk is excellent material, excellently performed.

Driving this CD is Stykos' guitar playing and her voice. The guitars are for the most part Froggy Bottoms, made in Newfane by her husband Michael Millard. This luthier must have truly been inspired by his marriage because these guitars sound gorgeous. Also, Stykos uses a very unusual tuning, one popularized by guitarist Ged Foley in the Irish band Patrick Street. "Open" or "alternate" tunings are the rage these days with acoustic guitarists, as they give a deep resonance to notes and chords. Stykos has made this particular tuning her own, and in rhythmic and melodic passages is able to get her guitar to be the dominant, but not dominating, instrument. She weaves in many guitar parts throughout so her instrument never sounds "canned" and predictable. She also plays mandolin and keyboard.

Her co-bandmates in the popular central Vermont group Bellatrix, Patty Casey and Susannah Blachley, contribute flute and viola and violin, respectively. Banjoist Bela Fleck, an early boyfriend of Stykos, joins on a few tracks along with ace piano accordianist Jeremiah McLane.

Another important instrument on this album is Stykos' voice. I wouldn't call her singing "pretty." Rather, she sings sometimes with a bit of a rasp, other times with a smokey quality to her voice like good bourbon going down smoothly. On occasion, she sounds as if she's just drunk a glass of the purest mineral water: pristine.

Each of the nine vocals has an interesting subject and lyrics. At age 47, this former live art music promoter who brought many fine folk acts to the Barre Opera House and the Wood Art Gallery, has had many relationships, met scores of interesting people and raised a family: all these experiences come out in her songs.

I particularly like the lines in the title track "In The Earth's Fading Light": "It's a matter of life/in the beak of a dove/It's a fountain of stars/Releasing their love/In the cascading light, I see you." Stykos is also reflects on her previous loves. In "The Delaware Side" she writes: "It's not hard to explain/It's just hard to feel this pain/I was young, I was unafraid/Drawn like a moth to the flame." My favorite lyric on this album is "Song To My Children." She offers this advice: "Children be wise, be strong, be driven/Open your eyes to what is hidden/Offer your tears like rain from heaven/Open your heart to what is given."

In an interview, she said she began writing songs for this album a year ago. "I've been raising kids. …I kept writing music, but was not recording any of it and playing in my kitchen by myself," she said. She said she owes a debt of gratitude to local Montpelier musicians, who play informally each week, for getting her back into music and teaching her what was required of a rhythm guitarist. "It was pivotal. I started to learn how to do a whole new kind of guitar playing — rhythm, accompaniment to fiddle tunes, Old Time and Celtic music. I wasn't in the spotlight, a singer songwriter. I was just part of the mix and it was a lot of fun."

She said she wrote 14 songs in a few months and started recording last January. She recorded on a home digital recording machine. "It was more important for me to stay at home and do it at my own pace then in a recording studio with expensive equipment," she said of the experience. "That meant I had to learn how to run the equipment, which was a huge learning curve," she said. She did get help with mixing and editing from Corin Nelsen, who works with Will Ackerman the famed guitarist who once owned Windham Hill Records and now lives in southern Vermont.

With such a fine sophomore album under her belt, Stykos has modest goals. She said she has no real plans to hit the folk music circuit to promote her album. "I would just like it to reach people whose hearts are looking for some inspiration," she said. "My goal is not to climb the ladder of singer/songwriter, but to play music and have fun."

In the Earth's Fading Light

Album review by Robert Resnik, Seven Days

Central Vermont genius songwriter, musician, and concert promoter Kristina Stykos doesn't crank out recordings easily. The years of painstaking work that have gone into her new CD release, entitled "In the Earth's Fading Light" has resulted in a big payoff, though: Stykos has created 16 tracks of original music (well over an hour) which are as textural and color-rich as any of Joni Mitchell’s finest work.

Stykos is a master of the acoustic guitar, particularly in her innovative rhythmic chord work, and can also play the stuffing out of a mandolin or a cittern, its bigger and lower cousin. She is a solid piano player, which may be a surprise to many who have seen her perform, always on strings, with central Vermont chanteuse Nikki Matheson or with her current trio Bellatrix.Kristina’s voice has a fragile heartbeat quaver, and is often mixed in more as an instrument in the band than as a lead instrument.

Texture texture texture. The palette ranges from gypsy waltzes to dreamy meditations on surviving “train wreck” relationships to a farewell in 3/4 time to the late great Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham, one of Kristina’s musical inspirations. Scottish and French-Canadian music are among Stykos’s favorite genres, and in addition to an instrumental version of Scottish folk superstar Dougie Maclean’s song “Broken Wings” this album also includes a set of original jigs which are Celtic as can be, and a Stykos reel that could have easily been written in St. Marc-sur-Richlieu. It’s always a pleasure to hear music played with a conspicuous lack of testosterone, particularly from places known for their “musical macho”.

Almost all of the tracks on “In the Earth’s Fading Light” were recorded in sparkling digital at the artist’s home studio in Chelsea, a venue that provided Stykos with the time and the flexibility to get the exact results that she wanted. The result is sonic ear candy. Even in the presence of the scene-stealing musical talents of old friend Bela Fleck and Bellatrix bandmates Patti Casey and Susannah Blachly, Stykos stays very much in control of the sound and the vibe.

My favorites? Kristina’s rhythmic and vocal interplay with Bela’s banjo on “The Delaware Side” keeps reverberating through my head, as does the dreamy and fragile beauty of “Swallow Come Down”. Stykos has created a rich set of music which stands up to and opens up with repeated listening. There’s great new music in them there hills!”

In the Earth's Fading Light

Album review by Mark Sustic, Vermont Folk Music Calendar

Kristina is a Central Vermont-based songwriter, musician, concert promoter, and one third of the group Bellatrix, which also includes Patti Casey and Susannah Blachly. Other guests on the recording include Karen Almsquist, Bela Fleck and Jeremiah McLane. The CD includes 16 original songs and tunes, born from the deep well of Kristina’s insight, imagination and perspective based on experiences as amother, friend, 2nd generation immigrant, student of life and the natural world, musician and singer and seeker of truth.She has gained insight and inspiration from musicians she has encountered as a student, promoter and musician-Dougie MacLean, Tommy Sands, Bela Fleck, Russ Barenburg, Johnny Cunningham and others-and made them part of who she is and what she sings and plays.

There is a photo included in the packaging of Kristina’s home-based recording ‘nook’ in Chelsea-an old wooden chair, a southwestern rug under it, a cat, a computer screen and digital mixer, a window opened just a notch, a guitar positioned and ready for playing-an inviting image that should make anyone want to dive in and get started on long-delayed projects and ideas.

Fortunately Kristina has started and finished this first of what we can only hope will be many more. She is another of those grand Vermont musicians with the experience and wisdom to seek peace-of heart, mind, spirit and the world-far in excess of any sugar-plum dreams of fame and fortune on stage, radio or recording. We’re fortunate to have her among us.

In the Earth's Fading Light

Album review by Richard Radford, Vermont Standard

One of the best things about living in Vermont is being part in the creative economy, a brew of various artistic cultures that blends a rich assortment of painters, sculptors, musicians or writers right in our own backyard. The latest to join this mix is musician and songwriter Kristina Stykos. She recently released her latest creation, In the Earth’s Fading Light a collection of songs recorded in her house in Chelsea.

If you were not briefed beforehand about the homegrown album, however, you would have no way to discern that it was not produced professionally in a large, grey slab-like urban studio. Though the masterful playing and strong lyrics are the most important and enjoyable features, the crisp, clear and alive-sounding tracks complete the image of a skilled Stykos locked away in a studio. It somehow brings a sense of relief, however, when you can imagine her surrounded with an odd array of technology and country life.

“Dappled sun through a skylight led me to a simple wooden chair,” she said of the recording. “I sat right down, and shifting my weight slightly, took in the gentle creaking. Two good condenser mics stood poised silently before me on stands; a high-tech mouse and a flat-screen monitor on the antique side table, attached by cable to a hulking digital memory on the far desk. In the earth’s fading light, on a day much like today, I began.”

The songs themselves are an array of folk tunes that encompass a divine inspiration and hope wrestling with darkness and woe. Along with vocals, Stykos played the guitars, mandolin and piano on the album. Though there are tones of a Celtic sound to some of the songs, the music has a specific flavor all her own, no doubt coming from a lifetime of enthrallment with playing and performing. The instrumental tracks on the album seem to be telling just as compelling a story as the ones with narrative.

The most striking feature of In the Earth’s Fading Light arises from Stykos’ commitment to honesty in her lyrics. Though the subject of each song is different geographically and temporally, the basic message seems to be: Things are sometimes bleak, but here we are, alive and, despite ourselves, intact. On the track “The Deleware Side” Stykos places herself in the midst of the chaos of the American Revolution:

“…Now I’m thinking that I done wrong/I can feel the shame/Burning hot like a wasted fire/Pouring down like rain/Rain in the gutter or rain in the sea/Ain’t no difference how/Just one big old river of life/Too wide to cross now…”

“Song to my Children” and the title track “In the Earth’s Fading Light,” also encompass a longing, though more fulfilled, and one can see Stykos trying at once to create art that serves a greater purpose, drawing her thoughts together.

“When it seems no one is listening,” she said, “that’s probably the most important time to keep singing, and really send it out there.”

Stykos was aided with the help of other talented artists, most notably internationally renowned banjo player Bela Fleck, who adds his immense talent to the album. Among the many credits to his name, Fleck has been nominated for 20 Grammys, and walked away with eight of them. Thought the “biggest name” on the album, his playing completely meshes with Stykos’s work and adds richness with stealing the spotlight.

She was also joined by Susannah Blachly and Patti Casey, who along with Stykos make up the musical trio Bellatrix. Casey played flute and Blachly played both fiddles and viola on tracks, beautifully adorning the central trunk of Stykos’s music.

In the Earth's Fading Light

Album review by Eric Reagan, VTfolkus

In the liner notes of the CD, Kristina Stykos writes: “Dappled sun through a skylight led me to a simple wooden chair. I sat right down, and shifting my weight slightly, took in the gentle creaking. Two good condenser mics stood poised silently before me on stands; a high-tech mouse and a flat-screen monitor on the antique side table, attached by cable to a hulking digital memory on the far desk. In the earth’s fading light, on a day much like today, I began.”

The 16 acoustic songs on the CD rise like smoky mist from the dark, cold landscape being warmed by rays of sunlight’ sometimes with the old-world feel of an Irish jig or a French Canadian fiddle tune, other times with a singer-songwriter’s poetry of the heart. All of the songs on “In the Earth’s Fading Light” are written by Stykos, except for an instrumental version of Dougie MacLean;s “Broken Wings” which has a fluttering, sometimes soaring flute accompaniment by Patti Casey. Other featured musicians on the CD include Karen Almquist on slide guitar, Susannah Blachly, who plays violin and viola, Bela Fleck on banjo, and, Jeremiah McLane on accodion: a “blue-ribbon” cast of accompanying players.

Her songs have a mystic bent. Introspective, poetic compositions that have an other-world feel while conveying the beauty of the land, exemplified by “Like a Thief” (“…And the rain comes down, like a thief/And runs into the ground/Orion was high in the winter sky/Now he’s buried with his crown…”) and “You Follow my Soul”. Other songs are joyful, upbeat celebrations such as the instrumental “Reel de Wheel” (my favorite of the collection) and “Three Jigs”.

I’m very glad that Kristina sent this CD and made me aware of her music. The instrumentation, so well-delivered; the vocals, so ethereal; the music, traditional, yet original; the songs, so poetically of the land.

In the Earth's Fading Light

"Vermont Album of the Year", Art Edelstein, Times Argus

"...With so many great albums produced this year it was really difficult to find the Best Vermont Album of 2005. However, after listening to them all over the past week, one album continues to rise to the top. The award goes to "In the Earth's Fading Light," by Kristina Stykos. Stykos deserves this kudu for several reasons. First, she is a fine singer as well as an interesting guitarist and solid keyboard player. I was consistently drawn to the emotional quality of her voice.

It's not the prettiest voice you'll hear. There's a lot of grit and smoke there, but it's also a voice with a lot of honesty and life's lessons learned. Stykos is also a great guitarist who has crafted guitar parts that are far more interesting than simple instrumental fillers behind vocals. Then there are the songs themselves.

Stykos has written songs of love, hurt, pain, history, family, and motherhood along with several guitar-based instrumentals. These are mostly sad songs, there's a lot of melancholy in Stykos' vision, but they are songs so intense that as you listen to them you can actually forget to breathe.

What finally makes "In the Earth's Fading Light" such an award winning CD is the fact that Stykos created it without another person in the producer's seat. Her conceptualization for her music was so right on she didn't need another's ear to tell her what to do. She recorded the many parts at home on studio equipment inviting friends, including banjo wiz Bela Fleck and others, to lend their talents, which enhanced the material. Stykos' vision of her music is totally accurate and I cannot imagine hearing it in any other way."

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