Starry Night

Before we get on with the review we want you to come to terms with something. Madonna will never release an album as good as Ray of Light. Kate Bush will never release an album as good as Hounds of Love. David Bowie will never release an album as good as Aladdin Sane. Joni Mitchell will never release an album ever again. And Tori Amos will never be as fiery, bruised, sparky and playful as she was in the first half of her career. It’s impossible. She is happily married now and she has a daughter and (one hopes) a lovely and fairly ordinary family life devoid of the angst and trauma that characterised some of her earlier work. This doesn’t mean she has to release dull music, of course. But you have to readjust your expectations.

Even a stan like this writer would admit that Amos’ last album (or two if you count her Christmas one, Midwinter Graces) was a misstep. It’s not that it was a bad album (in fact, compared to most other artists it was still weird and great) but it wasn’t up to her standard. Well her new album, Night of Hunters, is. But it’s different. Lush, sinuous, slow. It demands your patience. There are no drum beats. In fact there are no beats of any kind. There are plenty of tunes and wonderful, thick, gorgeous instrumentation, and her usual oblique lyrical touches and a wealth of musical ingenuity. But this is not Mad, Angry Tori. Nor is it Ayahuasca-dropping Tori.

The first time you listen, you may feel disappointed, or at the very least your brow may furrow. This is not an easy listen. It’s not Enya, it’s not Adele, it’s not Lady GaGa in ballad mode. Its closest relative in the world of popular music is Joanna Newsom’s 2006 harp-and-orchestra opus, Ys, but even comparing it to that is insulting and patronising to both works, as the only thing they have in common is their Ye Olde Classicale Orchestratione and their writer and performer’s possession of great skill at playing the harp or piano, respectively. Oh and the possession of a vulva, also.

Of course, if a male artist had put this much effort into a work so complex and rewarding, he would be hailed a visionary hero, but Tori is a woman and also, in the world of showbizzzz, ‘old’, so we’ll be surprised if it is greeted with much fanfare at all. Nevertheless this is a review comprised of our opinions and reactions, not a thinkpiece on sexism and ageism in the music industry, so we shall move swiftly on.

At first, despite the myriad of delicious intelligent musical and lyrical touches, that merit repeated listening (we literally notice something new every time we hear any of the expertly wrought songs) we were concerned that in actual fact, there is no true innovation here. Pop artists have done orchestral, ornate song cycles before (although now we’ve said that, we struggle to think of any other than the aforementioned Joanna Newsom work) and even if they hadn’t, this is investigating a style of music that came into fashion/being over 100 years ago: the rich, undulating music of the late Romantic period of Western Art Music. Is simply using the orchestration and arrangement techniques and applying them to complexly structured and multilayered alternative pop/singer/songwriter songs innovative? Well: yes. These aren’t just songs orchestrated lazily for kudos or effect, this is a stunningly rendered narrative cycle, hot and heavy with potent imagery and opaque enough to be intriguing and feel slightly exotic, but familiar enough not to totally disconcert.

And the stunning arrangements by long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale are not the sickly sweet, unimaginative orchestral arrangements that are usually featured in the work of pop artists, they are strange and compelling. All the instruments of the chamber ensemble: violin, viola, cello, oboe, clarinet, flute, bassoon, etc. are given equal billing, and instead of taking turns or creating quiet, background texture, they run together, in a pack, like the title's hunters, ferocious, tangled, blending together, in close harmonies, running alongside melodies and pushing them onwards.

Another of the most brilliant aspects is the inclusion of Tori’s daughter. Tashya doesn’t just do backing vocals, but plays the part of Anabelle, sings solos and duets with Tori. In fact, the song “Job’s Coffin”, which is practically devoid of Tori singing and a showcase for Tashya’s young but strong, willowy voice, is one of the album’s highlights, featuring the most prominent and memorable melody and a sweet lilting style centred around the lyrics: "Job's Coffin looks down, to see what mankind is gonna do."

Even if moments such as the dirge-like and bleak “Battle of Trees” don’t necessarily immediately inspire, there are shimmering classic Tori moments, like the up-tempo second half of “The Edge of the Moon”, middle section of “Star Whisperer” and “Nautical Twilight”. Opener, “Shattering Sea”, based on an improv from her live tours, starts dark and ominous and explodes, the ebb and flow, tension and release of Amos’ superior songwriting, always surprising and delighting, never fitting or conforming.

On “Fearlessness”, after a violent cacophony of strings and woodwind builds and builds it crests and soars, Tori singing “teams of horses of the pride, followed his cry through the fire, demons of the wild, pierced with the wind, did you listen?”. And on the eponymous “Night of Hunters”, Tori and Kelsey Dobyns, her niece, who sounds exactly like Tori, if she’d studied opera at a conservatory, pass the melody between each other, over music stately and dark. Midway through the song, though, a piano riff inconspicuously descends into a Medieval-style web and network of call and response phrases. “Carry”, the mournful, hopeful album closer, has the sound of great sheets of mist rising off cold, grassy, planes as our heroine laments: "in the procession of the mighty stars, your name is sung and tattooed now on my heart, here I will carry, carry, carry you... forever".

This is evocative music of total euphoria, with frenzied, mournful, lulling and baying networks of harmony and melody. There are sections, subsections, movements, drones, themes and variations, recurring motifs, pauses, peaks and troughs. As Tori puts it herself in the aforementioned "Carry": "Cathedrals of sound are singing". To attempt to describe it is to do it a disservice.

We have waited years for Tori to return to music this tearfully punch-packing, difficult, soaring and brave and she has delivered. Her best work for a decade.


  1. thank u so much!
    amazing job.
    i need this album.

  2. What an outstanding review. I might even include a portion of it on my revision for the "Night of Hunters" wiki page. Seriously, best review yet.

  3. OMG,I can't believe you are saying Midwinter Grace is a "christmass album".

  4. Oh, come on. For all intents and purposes, Midwinter Graces *IS* a Christmas album.

    Anyway, excellent review!

  5. Yes, Midwinter Graces is a Christmas album. Simple as that.

    Glad you all enjoyed it!

  6. WOW, that first paragraph was pretty short-sighted, as was the attempt to be clever with the "Peyote-Dropping" comment (which, for future reference, actually comes off as not only being culturally insensitive, and rather racist).

  7. What a superb review of Tori's new album and a summation of the awkward feeling many Ears With Feet carry silently with them these days. I have never openly said that Tori's stuff isn't as good as it was, but I've certainly felt it.

    As an obsessed fan since 1992, I can remember feeling like a traitor every time I bought an album by anybody else, such was my level of devotion. And I still feel a twinge of hurt whenever somebody dismisses Tori offhandedly, but I really think some of the commenters above need to lay off a bit.

    You need to know that people are entitled to opinions and that even though you have a special insight into how transcendent Tori is, not everybody else who misses this is an idiot.

    Seriously, you're not going to get a more respectful or insightful take on Tori in the present moment of her life and career than this one.

    I think Tori said it best. "I tell you that I'll always want you near,
    You say that things change my dear"

  8. "[...]and I still feel a twinge of hurt whenever somebody dismisses Tori offhandedly [...]"- yerp.
    "but I really think some of the commenters above need to lay off a bit."- no, what she's made since scarlet's walk, n some of her improvs, have been good individually-LIVE- but album-wise she's been pretty weak, vocally, n in every other way.

  9. "no, what she's made since scarlet's walk, n some of her improvs, have been good individually-LIVE- but album-wise she's been pretty weak, vocally, n in every other way."

    I agree, I meant that posters need to lay off the reviewer.

    Live, she's unsurpassed, no question.

  10. i'm bookmarking this to come back and read once I've absorbed the album. Can't wait. For the record though, I don't get the idea of always referring to tori as having been at her best when she was young and angry. That was just one kind of Tori. There have been others and all of them have value and power, in my view.

  11. The outrageous, racist comment about Native Americans seem to have been edited. Yet, the edit is certainly still culturally-insensitive and undermining.

    Why do Tori Amos fans and people who write about Tori feel entitled to such casual racism? Oh wait. It's because you people are ignorant, yet consider yourselves quite witty, and are a bunch of bigots who clearly suffer from a high level of entitlement.

  12. The original comment was not an attempt to be witty or clever, it was a misunderstanding. A friend - who is an even bigger Tori fan than us - had mentioned that Amos had (in the past) taken Peyote, experienced visions and used the experiences to write songs. Our comment was to suggest that the Tori whose album is about to be released, was not the same Tori who wrote songs based on drug trips/visions/hallucinations.

    When we researched this, after your comment, we realised we had been wrong and should have checked this beforehand. We couldn't find any evidence of Tori admitting to using Peyote, recreationally or otherwise, but we did find quotes of her admitting to the use of Ayahuasca, which she, herself, refers to as a "drug" (albeit a "medicine man's journey drug") and describes, in her own inimitable way, as having given her visions, or, again, in her own words "trips", but not being something she uses recreationally, but as something to do "inner work".

    So we changed it.

    We are a small blog with a dedicated but relatively tiny readership and when we uploaded this review, we didn't anticipate it to get any comments or readers, let alone the ones we've received so far. So we're grateful that it found a wider readership.

    We are also flawed human beings and still very young, and as such, learning and growing. We do and did not intend nor want to be racist or come across as such in our writing. So: we would like you to explain exactly what part of our writing was racist and why, so that, if we feel you have a valid point, we can learn from it and not make similar mistakes again.

    This is especially important to us as one of our writers is one eighth 'Native American', and as such, we wish to correct any ignorance related to the writing or attitudes portrayed on this blog, by our writers, but also in our personal lives.

    If you are going to accuse us, or our writers, of outrageous racism, cultural insensitivity, bigotry, entitlement or undermining comments, please elaborate. Send us an email. Try to educate us or point out where we've gone wrong.

    - Shiny & New

  13. Stevie Nicks, Marianne Faithfull, and Blondie have all just released albums, at least two of which have been well-received and widely praised. And all three artists--vocalist Debby Harry of Blondie--are over 60s years of age.

    Kate Bush's recent release was also widely praised in the British press.

    Some in the record industry might have 'attitudes' about older women recording artists, but please don't assume people everywhere do.

    I think most people over 30 today are thrilled that we still have artists like those named above, as well as Tori Amos and Patti Smith, recording today, and, in some cases, doing their best work in years.

  14. Actually, the improv which I assume you're referring to isn't actually in Shattering Sea. It's Star Whisperer from what I've heard. :)