Ethel last went into the studio for its 2006 Light, and while the fearless foursome has since been heard on discs like Oshtali, a collection of new works by Chickasaw student composers, it took them six years to return with their next solo album, the complementary Heavy.
To be sure, the wait was worth it: The ensemble, which at the time of recording still included its recently-retired violinist Mary Rowell, sounds at its best in this harmonious marriage between a New-York–based quartet and a bevy of New-York–based composers. And whereas Light opened with lithium-laced strings reaching further heavenward, there is a more basal instinct with Heavy’s first track, Don Byron’s sexily curvaceous String Quartet No. 2, “Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye.” The work goes far beyond the singer’s hallmark “Let’s Get it On” and delves into the many facets of his personal life: a growling Don Juan onstage ultimately killed by his father offstage. What other word is applicable but heavy?
Fascinating rhythms dominate the whole of the disc, which moves into John Halle’s Sphere[‘]s before aurally etching Julia Wolfe’s Early That Summer, music that is the sonic equivalent of Henry James meets Virginia Woolfe. There’s a down-and-dirty crunchiness to John King’s No Nickel Blues and a kinetic edginess to Raz Mesinai’s La Citadelle, offset by a balmy coolness of David Lang’s string quartet arrangement of Wed and Kenji Bunch’s String Cycle 1.
By the time Ethel closes up with an engrossingly intricate Rounds by Brazilian-born Marcelo Zarvos, they’ve given us a compact history of their 14 years as an ensemble, embracing whatever cultures and genres catch their fancy and unifying them through a handful of strings stretched over four cavities of wood. And no matter how far they travel to catch those sounds, it’s nice to see that they can also go home again.