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There are so many striking aspects to Heavy, the 2012 album by the self-proclaimed post-classical string quartet Ethel, that it's hard to know where to begin. The music itself, written between 1996 and 2009 by eight composers, most of whom are based in NYC, is terrifically, consistently strong. The power, inventiveness, diversity of repertoire, and the composers' exceptionally high level of skill in writing for string quartet make this album reminiscent of the groundbreaking releases by the Kronos Quartet from the 1980s and early '90s. Ethel is by any standard a remarkably capable ensemble, and the players demonstrate a fearless mastery of this music's daunting technical and interpretive challenges. Innova describes its release as "the perfect answer to Light" (Ethel's 2006 album with that title), and heavy is a good starting point for characterizing the music's gritty drive, intensity, ferocity, and, frequently, its volume. The CD opens with Don Byron's String Quartet No. 2: Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye, a dazzling, inspired reimagining of Gaye's songs. No less impressive and somewhat similar in character is John Halle's Sphere[']s, an homage to Thelonious Monk, with richly textured rhythmic overlays and an irresistible momentum. In contrast to the urban aggressiveness of these and most of the other works on the album are David Lang's wrenchingly poignant Wed and Marcelo Zarvos' Rounds, whose infectious groove and sunny sweetness might not technically be considered "heavy," but who could complain? The sound of the Innova CD is pristine and brilliant, with an almost startling sense of immediacy. Highly recommended for fans of new music and of spectacular string quartet performances.

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