My sister is my only sibling; I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose her. Two years ago, James A. McDermid experienced the unimaginable. The loss of Harriet (1975-2016) left a huge hole in his life, and ever since then music has been his lighthouse in a sea of grief. Tonal Glints is the second of two albums released in her honor, following last year’s Ghost Folk on Polar Seas. The new album has half as many tracks but is no less powerful. It represents a time in which the sorrow has reached the marrow.
McDermid cites Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain as one inspiration. In that multi-media book, the artist pairs photographs with personal answers to the question, “When did you most suffer?” One of the conclusions she seems to reach is that great suffering can lead to great art (although most would prefer not to have paid the price). McDermid channels his emotions into his music, and creates an echo of his sister’s life through the lens of loss.
Although primarily ambient, the music touches upon other genres as well, the opening chimes like field recordings, the highlight track “All the shutters are closed” an excursion into drone, the languid “I’ll take one who loves me” beginning like folk music before disintegrating into fog. But despite the changes in texture and instrument, the pensive tone remains the same. This is music about getting up in the afternoon when one had planned to get up in the morning, but staying the course long enough to get one little thing done. It’s music that whispers at a bedside so as not to disturb a loved one’s sleep. When words do emerge (“Within reach”), they dangle just beyond reach, like reminders in the clouds. Strangely, the album seems neither mournful nor cheerful, but stuck, attempting to pull its legs from the quicksand of grief. And yet we know that the album is evidence of the opposite: an artist fighting against torpor and ever-so-slowly succeeding.
Tonal Glints is about Harriet, but also about James, and the ties that bind, even beyond death. It’s a beautiful testimony about a continuing relationship, one sibling gone and yet not-gone. We can look through this window and almost see her; but in this case, even a glint is a blessing. (Richard Allen)