LA is a house of mirrors. The art that is born within is a reflection of the place, but also a new force that subtly reshapes the mythology of the city before being absorbed back into its glow, continuously, forever. My first thought after hearing the opening track from Ashes, the confident debut from Douglas (Amy Douglas White), was Pino Donaggio’s theme from Brian De Palma’s Body Double: a film that endlessly mirrors filmmaking itself and prominently features the Chemosphere, one of LA’s most prominent architectural features. Buildings, film, music. Light waves refracted through the prism of the city before impossibly coalescing at their own origin point.
Ashes vibrates with the unique frequencies of LA, even as it adds something new. The synesthetic opening instrumental, “Pent,” somehow sounds neon, with a whistly synth rocketing into the air before falling back to earth: a firework, tea kettle, or a siren, depending on which movie we’re in. That filmic nature is reinforced on the following track, “Come With Me,” an electric experience underpinned by drums that Hans Zimmer would be jealous of. A synth reminiscent of a warped phone dialpad breaks in throughout the track, joining a steadily-building series of mantras à la School of Seven Bells. White alternates between low, impassioned pleas in Spanish (“Todo lo que quiero es estar en tu mente/en tu vino/en tu Dios/Ahora para siempre”) and a breathless English refrain (“You’re too much for me”). This conceptual and linguistic dualism permeates the album’s richest moments.
White—whose bona fides include background vocals on M83’s landmark Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming—takes influence from that album’s cinematic sweep, soliloquies, and washes of synth. But White injects her own nightclub sensibilities on several tracks: second single “Clouds,” with its mournful violins and glittering glitch signals, would be equally at home in the soundtrack of a heady sci-fi as it would be at a show at the Shrine.
The vocal manipulations on “Seventeen” provide some variety in a pop-shoegaze track that evokes Tamaryn and Urban Hymns-era Verve, but doesn’t quite hit hard enough to stick. White returns to instrumental music in the lullaby “Subplay,” which opens with a deceptively schmaltzy intro before inching toward menacing “Venus in Furs” violin scratching and unpredictable chord progressions. White’s work with Mariqueen Maandig—and by extension, Trent Reznor—feels present on this track. Like Maandig and Reznor’s compositions, so much of the music on Ashes could double as a film score—see “Pent” and the lovely “Alter Ego”—forever blurring and redrawing the lines of medium and genre. This synthesis peaks in album standout “Do You Love Me,” a quiet, moonlit conversation that makes a simple and haunting promise: “Someday you’ll find me.”
With the exception of the thrilling “Come with Me,” Ashes is at its best when Douglas leaves space for echoes and reverberations. She sees the same LA that Vangelis did; both artists look past the hustle to access the sheets of silent neon smog hanging above the city, the darkness of deserted mountain paths at night, the vast loneliness of the Pacific. After this debut, I’m confident Douglas will continue to illuminate such hidden wonders.