ALBUM REVIEW: Sylvaine – Nova


Sylvaine is the pseudonym of Norway’s Kathrine Shepard, a classically trained composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist. Since 2014 Shepard has been releasing albums as Sylvaine, of which Nova (Season of Mist) will be the fourth (not counting a 2020 split with Unreqvited).

Nova’s striking album cover (by Andy Julia and Daria Endrese) features Shepard naked and in the foetal position, her body and long blonde curls fusing with a background depiction of what seems to be a galaxy against the blue-black of space. The conceptual interplay here between the newness of birth, the singularity of the individual and the vastness of the universe fits superbly with the album title.


Musically, Sylvaine evades the pigeonholes of categorisation; much of her work has sat in its own little secluded hinterland somewhere between post-rock, neoclassical, dark folk and black metal (Nova’s press release uses the term “atmospheric void gaze”). With this album the aim seems to be to push the sound further in each of those directions. The record’s themes are drawn from Shepard’s personal experience with overcoming grief and loss over the past few years.


Nova begins with the title track — a piece based around a choir constructed from layers of Shepard’s lulling and melancholy voice. This piece is notable in that it is constructed using phonetic sounds rather than actual words. Shepard found herself repeating the sound “nova” during the writing of this track, from which the album title came. The meditative and prayer-like chant of “Nova”, sung with majestic fluency, recalls the work of Myrkur or even of Clannad.


The album’s second single, ‘Mono No Aware’ follows and, although the transition feels natural, we are thrust to the opposite end of Sylvaine’s sound. This is fully blown atmospheric black metal, complete with beast-like screams, blastbeats (by Sylvaine’s live drummer, Dorian Mansiaux, who guests on most of the album) and heavy tremolo-picked guitars. Within the chaos, though, are carefully constructed chord sequences contrapuntal synth melodies and lush vocal harmonies. Alcest is an obvious reference here (Sylvaine has previously worked with Neige of the French “blackgaze” band). The mood is sombre yet hopeful, and infused with a deep longing.


‘Nowehere, Still Somewhere’ hangs upon graceful and compellingly memorable folk-inspired melodies, with spacey gothic post-rock textures swirling and spiralling around Shepard’s tortured but assertive cries. Its haunting atmospheres bring an uplifting feeling of transcendence.


‘Fortapt’ is the only song written in Norwegian and is the longest song here at nearly twelve minutes. It begins ambiently, with jangling post-punk guitars, soft synth pads and Shepard’s voice, before crashing in with anguished doom-laden riffs that allow space for the vocals to soar above with their beautifully elegiac funereal folk. This song encapsulates all of the various moods of Nova, shifting seamlessly as it does between dreamlike lullaby and howling metal fury. Again, that deep and mournful longing is ever-present, as is the deceptively complex lattice of interweaving orchestration.

‘I Close My Eyes So I Can See’ is constructed around a delay-pedal guitar riff; this is as close as Sylvaine gets to shoegaze. Again, the vocal melodies are wonderful, and they get more and more magical as harmonies are layered up and as Shepard climbs ever-higher towards the top of her range. The whole thing furiously builds and expands, before gradually shrinking back to just the guitar and voice. The ethereal effects and the sheer scale of this expansion and contraction evoke a star going nova and then fading back again.


Album closer ‘Everything Must Come To An End’ is epic and expansive without using drums or heavy guitars. Instead, it is based upon a gigantic clean guitar sound, augmented by synths and bowed strings (played by Lambert Segura of SAOR and Patrick Urban). Shepard’s voice soars mournfully over the top as the track slowly unfolds over eight minutes. As always, the orchestration is exemplary, and the piece seems to breathe in and out as layers are added and taken away and as the dynamics pulsate. The music feels heavy yet delicate, huge yet intimate. We are left with just the fading sound of the strings as the forty-four minute album reaches what feels like a completely natural conclusion.

PODCAST: Episode 152: Duncan Evans Interviews Sylvaine About “Nova” and More!

Nova is an album that takes the listener on a journey. It is varied but cohesive. The full breadth of Sylvaine’s expression is contained here, presented so that the opposing elements work to lift each other and create a whole that is purely Sylvaine’s. It is a magnificent album that draws from disparate styles, rearranges and recombines elements thereof, and illustrates Sylvaine’s loss, anguish, melancholy, hope and spiritual rebirth in vital and scintillating glory.


Buy the album here:

9 / 10