Label: Massacre Records
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
With very personal material, there’s always the danger of becoming too close to what you’re writing about – so close that you lose perspective and risk losing true emotional drama to melodrama. Described in the bio as “the diary of Helena Iren Michaelsen’s life turned into lyrics and music, captured on an album”, ANGEL‘s A Woman’s Diary – Chapter II does at times have that problem.
Helena sings; producer and husband Oliver Phillips plays all the instruments. The Norwegian singer is also in the band IMPERIA; this is the follow-up to Chapter I, released in 2005.
“I have nothing to hide”, she says in the bio. “I dare to completely be myself and talk about everything openly and honestly. And I dare to be myself no matter what people may say or think about me.”
She also says in the bio that the songs are about “things that happened and are happening along the way”. Some are from her childhood, she says.
Others are likely based on the heartrending situation she is currently experiencing. Her daughter Angel was taken from her after a dispute in Froland, a commune in which they lived. She alleges her daughter is being abused and trafficked and says she was jailed and placed in a mental hospital when she tried to rescue her. It’s an ugly story and one that’s hard to get an exact handle on since there’s little official information available.
So with a horrific backstory like that, and since it’s her and her husband alone in this project, it becomes clear fairly soon that maybe an objective third party could have been involved to give it the objectivity, both musically and lyrically, it sometimes needs.
Never Again builds in intensity and volume with each pass through the repeated defiant verses (“Never again I will fall in love”). The ‘chorus’ contrastingly is wistful and reminiscing (“Cause it hurts me”). The base of piano, strummed guitar and booming percussion is built on with orchestral touches. Helena’s voice is a deep full alto on the verses, a pained soprano on the ‘chorus’. The final time through the verse, she sings with herself in two octaves, which is an interesting touch, but the volume of the production is a little too loud, so it’s harsh and a bit jarring and a bit too sharp against the resulting hushed chorus.
Streetchild would be right at home on pop radio a few decades ago; it’s the first of many broad stylistic shifts in the album. It tells of meeting a homeless girl and bringing her home (which could be an analogy for her own daughter, as she sings, “A streetchild, a motherless streetchild”). Her voice gets a little histrionic and dramatic in the scene where she offers the child a home, then later, there’s a kind of odd almost spoken/shouted exaltation (“What has become of the world/Where is the love, where is the care”).
Don’t Believe is one of the strongest tracks, hiding a sharp point in its delicate, uplifting lilt (“I don’t believe in God/Cause he never told me/What is wrong or right”). Not only that, He let her down, as she says in the wistful, tender bridge (“When I folded my hands/As an abused child/And I looked to the sky/And I prayed for help/But he didn’t come”). Throughout, she poses questions – “Where are the good dreams hiding,” because I have nightmares; “Where are the good people hiding,” because I keep getting hurt and “Where is my destiny heading,” because I’m lost. It’s well done and well constructed, although the last runthrough of the bridge-type section could have been omitted in favor of the much stronger ending that it builds on in tempo and layering.
Imprisoned is completely autobiographical, relating the circumstances of her daughter being taken away (“They locked me up/In a mental hospital”), and it’s the only truly metal song here (symphonic metal, to be exact). It sounds appropriately deranged, furious, angry, frantic and desperate (“In a mental hospital/Where I had absolutely no reason to be/They drugged me”, she grates). There’s a ‘Greek chorus’ done in a mix of Latin and English that has overlapped lyrics mixed, so that they are almost impossible to discern (without lyrics, I certainly couldn’t have – “Stop the harassments/Stop the lies/And unite her and I”, she says, but it’s pretty much inaudible). A final section is delivered in a death metal bellow (“I was hungered/I was abused/I was tortured in prison”).
Do You Hear My Cry is set to almost a nursery rhyme, sing-song ballad rhythm, and Helena’s voice is pained, wrenched, and occasionally over-emotive and affected. This could be from her daughter’s perspective (“Why don’t you save me/When I scream for help/But no one helps me”), especially in the poignant description in the bridge (“Once I was a princess dancing/On my shimmering high heel shoes/Reaching out with my both hands to the sun in the sky”). The undermixed, echoing end is unresolved, perhaps intentionally (“And I try to run away/But I am stumbling/I try to run away/But I missed the train”). She can be kind of an awkward songwriter — her rhymes are a little unwieldy and sometimes there’s too many words crowded in for the groove to support.
The all-piano track Eg Ser (‘I See’) is delicately sung in Norwegian and is another highlight. Her voice is lovely here, and there’s a rather folk quality in how the lines are repeated with very slight differences each time, which is well done. It’s about how one must live one’s life for oneself, that another can’t do it for you, but reassures that the other person will always be there for support.
Happy Birthday is straightforward soft rock, late ‘80s style, with a fairly obvious sentiment – thinking of her missing daughter on her birthday. The echoing repeats of lyrics for emphasis in the verses is an overused tactic, but what mars this track most, especially in a chorus that’s full of pain, is a way too aggressive drum mix – it’s all you can hear, it’s overwhelming and it’s very much in the way.
My Desire has a cool Middle-Eastern, belly dancing vibe, full of bouzouki, fiddle, handclaps, and throbbing drumming. But Helena’s operatic singing, meant to be dramatic, is uncomfortable and unpleasant listening, as are the occasional moans to drive home the point of the title. There’s a heavy riff that kicks in halfway through, which adds depth, but why does she sing in Turkish just randomly to reiterate, “I’m full of desire”, which is what she’s saying all along? Not to mention, it doesn’t seem this album is really the place for this sentiment, contextually speaking.
The lilting acoustic ballad Rock In The Sea has a fine beginning, about feeling alone and wishing for comfort, but the spoken and whispered parts are overly dramatic and unnecessary. A male voice sings the chorus four times, which is three too many, but it does come to a pretty nice resolution, that now she has someone (from “I miss things that make me smile/Words that make me smile” at the beginning to “I call for you/Smile when you say my name”).
Silence, which switches from acoustic guitar to piano, is nicely underdone and quite moving (“Silence, my friend/Don’t know how to say the right words/At the right time”, she sings, like there’s nothing more to be said because it’s all been said, and “I choose silence as my friend/Closed mouth, open eyes/Can you read them”, which is an evocative turn of phrase, the whole concept of silence here is carefully drawn). She recreates the scene where her daughter was taken (“I wanted to follow my soul/But the people around me/Only stole/The only one who was there/When my tears were falling down”) and it’s vivid, and her voice is emotional but restrained.
Angel Maria, another piano ballad, is again full of too many drums and just too much, period – too much repetition, too big, it goes on too long – and it hides the real guts of what this is trying to say, which is “I hope you can feel how hard I tried/And still try/I feel your fear/I cried all your tears”, that she has struggled so hard to find her daughter and that’s really moving. But it’s like the music gets in the way of really expressing the feeling as effectively as you’d want.
The finale, Goodbye, is simply her voice and rich, full piano and in its simplicity lies its beauty. It’s perhaps imagining a future when her ordeal is over (“Goodbye tears and pain/Again I leave you behind”) and here the piano is heavy and dark and so is her voice, and “Hello happiness/Hello smile”, when both lighten and become optimistic and hopeful. The emotion here is much better conveyed, much more direct.
Also included is Angel Maria’s Poem, in Norwegian and written by her daughter; it’s an allegory about animals and her own family; she writes, “My mother lives together with me/Together with my mother I’m safe/And with my mother/The animals are also safe.” It’s a wrenching reminder of Helena’s profound loss. One hopes she will find closure in this terrible situation and if it continues to shape her work, perhaps she’ll allow some guidance into the process to enable her to take a needed step back.