There’s a lot to be said about emptiness in music. Quite often the music I’m drawn to is the stuff that fills every space with sound. Engaging through multiple layers of sound, explosive music that’s instantly understandable and enjoyable. Penelope Three, the final part of a trilogy of albums from Penelope Trappes is nothing like this, instead revelling in the quieter and more expansively empty sounding moments in music and the result is a daring and always interesting album.
Opener ‘Veil’ sort of sets the scene with a steady drone-like bassline, as instruments and choral vocals from Trappes echo across an open space of nature sound effects. It’s barely a minute long, but it captures such an intriguing atmosphere that it’s more than worth mentioning here. As an album, Penelope Three settles into itself very quickly, there’s a distinctive style across all 10 of these songs, with an almost threatening and dangerous quality. A foreboding dread of something to shock you feels like it’s just around the corner. It never appears, but this sense the album gives off is one of my favourite things about it.
‘Nervous’ is the clearest example of the mood and tone of the record, the constant underlying bassline of strings creating such incredible tension that it’s exhilarating. Definitely my stand out track here, I love the use of thuds of drums and sudden silence to ramp up the tension as industrial sounds pierce through the piano and bassy noise. Penelope’s vocals send me straight to the most obvious comparison I can make: FKA Twigs. There’s so much of that same danger and thrilling mystery in the way she performs these lyrics that much of this would fit perfectly next to LP1, for instance. That’s definitely a great thing, as I found a similar need to delve deeper as I do with FKA Twigs’ music, knowing that there was much more under the surface than a few initial listens could give me.
The use of piano throughout is also worthy of note. You can tell all of these songs originated with a single piano line, before becoming much more electronic and spectral in their production. It gives songs like ‘Fur & Feather’ a much earthier texture, where the ethereal vocals may have made it sound slightly too otherworldly to engage with the lyrics themselves. I will say I did often find it impossible to understand exactly what Penelope was saying, often the vocals were produced and melded into the rest of the music so much that the already obtuse lyrics were even harder to unpick.
The closing track ‘Awkward Matriach’ feels like one of those moments where the lyrics feel more like individual statements than a complete narrative, especially as the song properly develops and expands into a transcendent last few minutes. It’s a clear highlight still, I’m definitely not saying this sort of lyrical structure is a bad thing, it’s just quite different to other records of this type. Another album that Penelope Three really reminded me of was David Bowie’s illustrious final album Blackstar. Penelope Trappes has that same flair of vocal, a sort of off kilter tone on songs like ‘Blood Moon’, that’s a brilliant counter to the electronic production surrounding it. It’s not quite as ambitious, of course, but for me this album works brilliantly as a shorter 35-minute performance, meaning you never tire of some of the paths it treads multiple times.
Penelope Three has been a real joy to get into for me, it’s not usually the sort of album I’d enjoy, but there’s something about the blend of spectral sounds and operatic ethereal vocals that I really found intriguing. It feels like an album that’s only going to get better over time too, an unexpected gem of a record.
Words by Sam Atkins.