The first thing that hopefully jumps out with regard to Insomnia is the name attached to the project. If you’ve been involved with the CA/Bay Area metal scene for the better part of the last decade, chances are pretty good that your ears have crossed paths with Leila Abdul-Rauf. She released two fairly under-appreciated blackened gems with the sadly defunct Saros, and she’s a current member of both Hammers of Misfortune and lords of guttural ruin, Vastum. If any or all of these entities remain unfamiliar, just understand that they represent three very contrasting faces of our genre that all achieve top-shelf honors. Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure.
The second thing that conceivably looms larger than life here is that beautiful album cover. If you get a strong Agalloch/Marrow of the Spirit sense based off those wonderfully moody, muted tones, it’s because it was done by the same artist: Mark Thompson. This particular work, entitled “The Slow Pass of Hours,” is a perfect representation of much of what Leila delivers on Insomnia. Intensely idyllic, if your idea of a perfect afternoon involves being immersed in a hushed, frigid view of some reticent vale where the only potential snapshot of industrial life is a hundred-to-one shot that a century-old Western Pacific might eventually split that distant glow and barrel its way beneath your dangling legs. If that’s a familiar pang – that hankering for detachment and reclusive rumination that bristles in your dirty goddamn marrow – then this record will serve as an ideal soundtrack for such a trip.
Visual music: It’s a concept that reaches as far back as Wassily Kandinsky in the early 1900’s, but it was familiarized through the late 70s works of Brian Eno, one of ambient music’s principle architects, and it explores the concept of closely connecting music to an environmental sense, as opposed to the “customary narrative and episodic quality that music normally has.” Insomnia works really well in a visual sense because, despite adhering to a form that emphasizes mostly shorter songs, the overall priority remains firmly aligned to ambient music’s drifting, comforting atmosphere that can easily serve as either a focal point for listening or a backdrop for observing.
Vaporous, ghostly vocals are a recurring theme and give songs like “Midnight,” “The Opening” and the wonderful “He Sits in His Room” a strong sense of lulling drift akin to Worm Ouroboros/Amber Asylum (the latter of which featured Leila on 2009’s Bitter River), and they’re generally tied alongside ample use of muted, sleepy horns that give the listener a true sense of wavering consciousness – like swaying through a narcotic cloud in some dim, muffled subway.
The closest stretch of alertness hits with the fairly grounded, synth-driven pulse of “Clock Glows” and its follow-up, “The Pull,” which features soft piano, more dreamy horns, and a soothing serenade from guest vocalist Kat Young. Then it’s right back into the drift, as synths, curling e-bow (Jan Hendrich), violins (Ryan Honaker) and touches of spectral guitar (Nathan Verrill of Cardinal Wyrm) further blanket the listener in Insomnia’s dark, exquisite phantasmagoria.
If you’re in the music game solely for the metal – something I am consistently keen on advising against – you might mistake the lack of riffs in Leila’s solo work as some evidence of daintiness. While elegance is clearly a factor, there’s an intrinsic weight in the somber drift of a work such as this that can be every bit as affecting as that down-tuned Swedish jolt, it’s simply more… Pictorial. Insomnia does a wonderful job of painting a gloomy yet alluring portrait that floats into your ears like some surreal, audible version of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, and that’s a unique and beautiful thing that should not be missed.