Kristina Stykos with Philip Aaberg, Raven

Album Review by Robert Resnik, Seven Days

February 9, 2011

 

On her third recording, Raven, Orange County musician and songwriter Kristina Stykos blends the wild and the gentle, with both rockin’ tunes and the smooth keyboard work and synth imaginings of Philip Aaberg. He’s a veteran of Windham Hill Records, the flagship label of new-age music, whose roster also included such artists as George Winston, Liz Story and label founder/guitarist Will Ackerman.

Over the course of 14 original cuts, Stykos covers a wide variety of musical terrain. She rocks out on a big, cutaway acoustic guitar on “Thing for You.” On dangerous love songs such as “Turn Off the Noise” and “Soul of My Soul,” she croons with a heartfelt, emotional quaver. On “Abenaki Hills” — a current personal favorite — she chants lyrics that one could imagine rising like mist from a mountain lake at dawn.

Throughout the record, Stykos uses her considerable skill as a poet like that of a painter: She draws the listener in and captivates with a canvas of vivid imagery. Her glorious, trance-like guitar riffs and Aaberg’s spacey synthesizer work underscore her words, like sunlight refracted through old glass of deep but vibrant colors.

Raven showcases Stykos’ consider-able talents as a musician and singer, but also as an engineer. Renown is growing for the sounds she crafts in her homegrown studio at the end of a long dirt road in Chelsea. Listening to this disc, it’s easy to understand why.

Recording acoustic music is simultaneously simple and incredibly complicated. Stykos’ technical expertise here has resulted in an amazing listening experience. The record swirls with a depth and warmth that makes it stand out from the myriad acoustic releases in Vermont each year. It makes me want to duct-tape my old Dynaco A-25 speakers to my head so I can hear every snap and ring. In more ways than one, Raven is a treat for the ears.

Kristina Stykos performs Wednes-day, February 16, at Kismet in Montpelier with Bow Thayer and Holy Plow.

 

 

Kristina Stykos Goes Deep in "Raven"

CD Review by Art Edelstein, The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus

December 23, 2012

 

With the release of “Raven” by Chelsea singer-songwriter Kristina Stykos, the three members of the former very popular central Vermont acoustic, all-women, singer-songwriter trio — Bellatrix (Stykos, Patti Casey and Susannah Blachly) — have released new albums recently.

While Casey and Blachly have released several solo albums in recent years this is Stykos’ first solo effort since 2005’s “In the Earth’s Fading Light,” which was awarded a Times Argus Tammie for best album of the year.

With “Raven,” Stykos puts herself in contention again for a year-end award. As with her previous solo album, this one is strong on song content — all written by her — lyrics and production. Stykos gets help from Montana-based Philip Aaberg, a well-respected keyboardist and percussionist with a long resume in rock music. They have been friends for years. The album was initially recorded in Stykos’ home recording studio by her, and then sent to Aaberg’s studio in Chester, Mont., where he completed the recording.

In the years since 2005, most of Stykos’ work has been as a recording engineer and record producer. When she does perform, it is most often with others. Recent groups with Stykos include the now defunct neo-Celtic band Wagtail. These days audiences find her playing acoustic sets with bluegrass rocker Bow Thayer.

Stykos’ own music has a dark edge to it. Her guitar work, primarily strummed chords in alternate-tuned guitar, has a hypnotic quality. She also adds her own mandolin and a bit of electric guitar to the mix. Her voice, which she claims is not pretty, sounds somewhat like a female version of Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. A pretty voice here would not be as effective, as her smoky, measured delivery is better suited to the musical style and its lyric content.

Stykos’ music is introspective and thoughtful. Her words seem to bubble up from the depth of her psyche, ideas and emotions from an underground or subconscious place that may be a very painful one. This is an artist not afraid to put her life story out there for others to follow.

Little of what she writes about on Raven is happy or carefree. Take the title track. Stykos writes: “Raven, raven in a tree/ If I were a young man I’d have three/ One for to weep, the other for to sew/ One for to miss me when I go/ Hear her cry/ Watch her fly …” This is a succinct, thoughtful lyric.

On the haunting “Aniya” (breathe on in the Lakota Sioux language), a chant as much as a song, she writes: “If I could see your face/ If I could count the stars in the sky/ I might know my place/ Gently hold my truth in inside …”

Throughout “Raven” Aaberg has found the right groove that fills in the otherwise sparse content. This musician knows how to be supportive in a role that could have been over-the-top considering his considerable musical chops. He adds keyboard-generated strings, piano passages and a variety of percussion, choosing to flavor Stykos’ songs with instrumental herbs.

If the “Raven” is Stykos’ totem, then it suits her well. “The Raven’s” medicine is magic and to some this bird represents the great mystery of the void. On this 14-song album Kristina Stykos is certainly exploring many aspects of the human subconscious and succeeds very well.

 

Album Review by Dylan Waller, The Montpelier Bridge

Decembwer 16, 2011

 

…What hovers just above the earthly in [the other reviewed] disc contrasts with the more subterranean but equally stellar sound of Kristina Stykos’ recent release, “Raven”. Stykos’ voice moves in a limited range, but it’s not long before one realizes that this is not a limitation but rather a hypnotic, occasionally profound strength.

The raven of her song-cycle has not found its mate yet, as announced on the first track, yet it is equally determined to fly. In fact, the way Stykos approaches her notes, with an often subtle vibrato, reminds one of a bird on the uptake of flight.

Questionable and querulous as any wind may be, her songs deftly navigate the terrain of the lone wanderer on the long journey, traversing reverent places long abandoned and potential places to revere. This is the sound of what grows organically beneath a window’s view, where chthonic roots earn their way to the light. Mandolin, organ and luscious and surprising guitar leads accompany “Abenaki Hills” and “Wing and a Prayer,” and there’s a craft even in hitting several still-spots, such as on “Thing for You,” for as soon as the verses begin to appear motionless, an unsuspecting chorus blooms: “Let the sun shine.” By the time she returns to the verse “I’ve got my yoga/I’ve got my braincells/I’m a little bit damaged/but I’ll manage,” she is voicing the survival that comes from honestly assessing any of life’s desperate situations. To make such moments into art is a testament to endurance, where the song serves not merely as a signpost of growth, but as growth itself.

“Let’s Cherish the Day” is a highlight here. The percussive rasp and resonance of warning often darkening her guitar tone transcends to tenderness here, as she implores, “Step through the doorway . . .” and “follow me quickly through willow and pine,” to regaining a sense of what’s essential in the moments passing by which make up a life: “cherish the leaf/cherish the journey/cherish the crossroads . . . cherish your life.” A moment of stinging silence follows, before the incandescent strumming of her guitar responds and resumes. On the disc’s finale, “Turn Off the Noise,” she compels an old intimacy’s revival with a joyous, encouraging refrain: “Turn off your wireless/cut us free/let’s take the old road/between you and me.” With that ultimately joyous concluding refrain, the song crystallizes the entire disc: there’s something else to hear, outside and under the picture windows of life, all the way down to the roots of what hasn’t bloomed yet, inside and out.

These discs, taken separately, may on surface seem to represent quite disparate aspects of the human experience; the harmonic element is that both come from central Vermont (as a coincidental cross-pollination, Stykos is featured in a song on Blachly’s disc), and both represent an acknowledgment of the wholeness that resides in our artistic, natural and human landscape.

 

(Painting by Kristina Stykos "Raven's Journey")

 

Kristina Stykos Flies High with Raven

CD Review by Spencer Lewis, No Depression

December 13, 2010

 

   It’s not often that the poetry of words can be so well matched with its counterpart in sound and no one does this better than producer and musician Kristina Stycos. On her latest CD "Raven" there are some hard edges to decipher but it is the human spirit’s will to embrace the journey that triumphs on this CD. Windham Hill Records recording artist and Grammy nominated pianist/producer Phillip Aaberg joins Kristina on "Raven", and together they forge their own path in the new Americana landscape.

'Raven, Raven' opens the set to lay the groundwork as the articulate steel-string guitar reveals a melody at once both dark and shimmering, ominous yet hopeful. In a smoky whisper she sings:


“Raven, Raven black as silk

Dark as night, pure as milk

Fold me in your ragged arms

Keep my heart away from harm”

 

A stinging mandolin soars above the fray like the raven itself, the merging of imagery, sound and thought. The metaphor of flying is a constant throughout the record as she borrows from the natural world to transcend the inner. Still, there are times when all poetry is put aside to stand naked, as in the chorus from 'Abenaki Hills':


"I'm looking - even though I cannot see

I’m looking –will god help me?”

 

The album moves like a cheetah one moment or a team of oxen the next. As in the former, 'Thing For You' gives both musicians room to fly with pulse driven snake-like drums and dancing keyboards, while her voice is cloaked in Dylanesque punk, sultry and cutting:


“I got my yoga, I got my brain cells

I’m a little bit damaged, but I’ll manage…

I got a solar gain attraction,

I got a light bending rainbow, passionate diffraction”

 

It also reveals some subtle but big time production skills that please the ear at every turn and put songs like this onto Triple-A radio playlists.

The oxen pull hard in the 12 bar blues 'Piece of Lovin’, and it’s this kind of song that assures "Raven" never gets weighted down in content or pace. Yet suddenly, with the album only half over, it delivers a one-two knockout punch starting with 'Last Cup of Love':


“It’s a tired rugged road, and a flagon for the asking

It’s a hearth filled with coals and a heart everlasting

It’s the rough hand of fate, that’s dealt without warning

It’s the last cup of love and your smile in the morning”

 

Then 'Cherish the Day' is like a stone dropped on the calm glassy surface of a lake with the ripples fanning out – inviting you in to its profound reverence:

 

“Let’s cherish the day for all that we’ve dreamed

Cherish the leaf and the journey, the current the stream

Cherish the crossroads and those left behind,

Cherish your life.”

 

If your heart is open, you’ll receive it, if it’s closed, it will help it to heal.

As is often the case, the making of "Raven" itself mirror’s the rollercoaster ride contained within. Even with it’s core of songs already written and recorded, writer and producer Kristina nearly abandoned the project in a year-long search for the right ingredients that could lift these precious nuggets to where their true identity could be revealed. It finally took a late summer cross-country ride to Aaberg’s Chester, Montana studio where he added just the right touch of sampled strings along with his signature acoustic piano and every other keyboard sound imaginable. Last but not least, he’s a top-notch drummer and it was the sum of these contributions that prompted a co-billing for the project as a whole.

"Raven" can, at times, be brutally direct in its approach to matters of the heart, be they intimacy, devotion, or one’s own failings. In 'Don’t Walk Away' the singer has no time to nibble around the edges:

 

“Don’t walk away just like you done before

Don’t walk away while I can only cry

Don’t walk away just like a man who’s gone

Don’t you walk away this time…"

 

'He Will Be Free' offers non-stop/ machine gun lyrics of a mystical meeting of an all too real account of a prisoner - and friend, ending his own life.

If your willing to meet this album halfway, it’ll amuse, endear, and take you for an unpredictable ride. 'Turn Off the Noise' closes out "Raven" in fitting fashion, rising slowly, then soaring, peaking high, and imploring:

“Shut off the input, while there’s still time

You got distractions taking your mind

I want to touch you, birds got to fly

Let’s turn on the ocean and turn on the sky

Let’s turn off the noise …and get quiet.”

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