Washington D.C.-based cellist Janel Leppin introduces her stylistically wide-ranging and experimental collective Ensemble Volcanic Ash on their 2022 eponymous debut. An impressively hard-to-pin-down artist, Leppin is a conservatory-trained performer whose music has often straddled the line between ambient pop, edgy, guitar-based indie rock, and avant-garde improvisation. With Ensemble Volcanic Ash, Leppin leans heavily into the latter, bringing together her ear for classical composition with spiraling, free jazz improvisation and cinematic soundscapes. Joining her in the group is her husband, guitarist/keyboardist Anthony Pirog, with whom she first became known for their equally genre-crossing duo albums. Also featured are bassist Luke Stewart, harpist Kim Sator, drummer Larry Ferguson, alto saxophonist Sarah Hughes, and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles. Together, they play a deeply textural and atmospheric brand of instrumental music that feels like it could be a soundtrack for an art film. The opening "Children of Water" has a mournful quality, like a film noir theme for a movie set in the Middle Ages. Equally compelling, "Woven Forest" has a roiling, minor-key cello groove over which the group trade twisting, harmonically adventurous solos. Yet more languid, "I Pose" is a shimmering tone poem in which Leppin's darkly attenuated cello is offset by fairy-wing flute and harp accents before crashing together against waves of saxophone and electric guitar. The rest of the album follows suit, much of which sounds like a fever-dream collaboration between chamber string ensemble Bang on a Can, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and noise-rock outfit Sonic Youth.
Ensemble Volcanic Ash Review
by Matt Collar