Canadian singer-songwriter Al Spx, better known as Cold Specks, has been making quite the name for herself over the past few years. Since her 2012 debut I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, she has earned accolades for her extremely versatile brand of soul and collaborated with renowned artists such as Moby and Swans. Her sophomore effort, Neuroplasticity, promises more of the same as she leads the way through another journey to the centre of the soul.
A Broken Memory sets the tone nicely with the sound of a worn-out church organ reverberating through one’s ears before Spx starts in with instantly mesmerising delivery. Between the horn section and the bluesy rhythm, it makes for a strong introduction to the album. Bodies at Bay is another strong Gospel-style track that effectively weaves multiple vocal parts together while also changing tempos repeatedly.
Old Knives is a slower, more measured track that features guitar as the primary instrument. Spx’s vocals dominate the track up until the cacophonous climax where horns, drums and drones assault the listener’s ears. Whether or not it works may depend on each listener, but I personally found it a suitable way to finish such a slow-burning song. Fittingly, A Quiet Chill begins with subdued keys but quickly gathers some energy as Spx conducts another stunning performance. The track once again reaches a powerful conclusion, though it consists of pleasant harmonising rather than pure noise.
Exit Plan is one of two tracks to feature backup vocals by Michael Gira, the frontman for notorious noise band Swans (whose most recent album featured a guest appearance by Spx). His menacing baritone is used sparingly and with added distortion, lending Spx’s choruses some interesting texture. His presence is certainly a good contribution to another slow guitar-driven number. Let Loose the Dogs is relatively positive-sounding in comparison with its ethereal guitar work.
Absisto is one of the lead singles, yet it sounds like an unconventional choice for one. Opening drones give way to a very warped synthesizer sound. Despite that, the tune is surprisingly serene and once again features Spx providing multiple layers of vocals. Living Signs is another number that’s solid but not amazing, distinguishing itself mainly through the use of distorted guitar.
A Formal Invitation quickly makes an impression through a waltz-like rhythm and sombre organ-driven instrumentation. It’s a very clear crystallization of Spx’s entire “doom soul” style, taking familiar Gospel music and making it sound especially foreboding and sinister. This song gets under the skin in such a good way. Closing track A Season of Doubt is a minimal number that features a sparse combination of trumpet and piano. Gira provides backing vocals once again but Spx still dominates the track – everything else is secondary as this quiet yet intense song draws to a close.
Neuroplasticity clocks in at just under thirty-five minutes, but its brevity is adequately compensated for by sheer consistency. The music in offer covers a variety of moods and arrangements, from upbeat guitar songs to morose piano ballads and many points in between. Through it all, Al Spx remains an impressive sonic powerhouse as she displays a talent beyond her years through both her vocal range and songwriting ability.