Mysterious. Captivating. Sensuous. Moody. Gorgeous. All words that describe my impressions when listening to the brilliant debut album Velvet Season by the experimental band Still Optimist. Formed in Paris, France in 2017 by Ukrainian artist Bina Timurova (vocals, songwriting, composing, guitar), and Hungarian Mihaly Sipos (keyboards, synthesisers, electronics, programming), Still Optimist creates an arresting blend of electronic/ trip-hop/ ambient/ cinematic music. In their bio, they colorfully describe their major influences: “alternative and electronic music bands such as The Cure with its contradictory ambivalent of joy and sorrow; Massive Attack with their dark bass lines and atmospheric synth pads; Bjork and her multi-layered meaningful lyrics and the way she moves with her voice on an extreme scale; Tesla Boy with the whole 80’s synth pop vibe and tunes; The Chemical Brothers for their outstanding soundscape and constant motion in sounds, and many more, such as Phantogram, Atoms for Peace, Him, Depeche Mode, Underworld, FSOL, and Archive.”
Another strong influence for the duo in the creation of Velvet Season was the 2013 Jim Jarmusch vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. They state: “The slow, dark melancholy, the constant whispering presence of passion and crunchy guitar tunes somehow beautifully lifted, transformed into a fully coherent album.” But whatever their influences, what’s clear is that their songwriting is exceptional, with intriguing lyrics, complex and unusual melodic structures, and innovative musical techniques.
This is immediately apparent on the opening track “Another Space,” which starts off with mysterious industrial sounding synths, a sharp drumbeat and buzzing reverb. Bina’s unusual vocals are baby-like, yet sultry as she sings “I am raising my eyes to the sky. But I’ll never see all the stars in the space. That one day are destined to meet. And their beautiful light, like a beacon for lost ships, will be mixed in a fatal dance. And those stars are destined to meet.” The tempo then shifts to a strong hypnotic EDM beat, as the industrial synths and heavy buzzing reverb continue. Bina croons “And they will be absorbed in their final farewell ball. They could even collapse, giving birth to a Black Hole.” It’s a mesmerizing track.
The creative visuals and design are also an important aspect of their production, as evidenced in their videos like this one:
Next up is the trippy “Dark Places,” with it’s spooky soundscape of grinding psychedelic synths and sensuous keyboards. Bina’s vocal gymnastics are impressive, reminding me at times of Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel. “Voices” has a Depeche Mode vibe, with lush synths that are mysterious and fuzzy. Bina’s vocals are enthralling as she sings about her fantasies and desires becoming a reality: “And these voices around my head they are getting louder. Voices around my head they remind me I like it.”
“Here Comes the Sun” is a beautiful triphop song about how natural forces always triumph over humans’ attempt to subjugate them: “Plants overgrown on blocks, drain the strength of concrete, take them into possession. People are full of absurd in their paltry attempts to transcend over Nature.” This becomes a metaphor for a loved one’s irrepressible nature: “Green sprouts grow through cracks in grey stone. As did your lust for life through all my years.” Bina’s soaring vocals are sublime.
“Chance” opens with a bit of surf guitar riff and strong drumbeat, then glittery synths and what sounds like skittering snare drum are layered over the repetitive drumbeat. With breathy vocals, Bina sings “If I only had a chance to feel your presence next to me. It’s more than I could give or take, that’s something that I can’t admit.” Heavy, distorted reverb and psychedelic synths are dominant features of the mysterious “Free Fall.” Bina passionately implores: “Don’t ask me why I’m afraid ’cause I won’t give you the right answer. When you jump out of a plane in free fall there’s no button to cancel.”
“Nomad” appropriately has a Middle Eastern feel with a beguiling melody and richly exotic synths that evoke the mystery of the fabled Arabian Nights. Bina’s sensuously breathy vocals are alluring as she sings to one about not being afraid to embrace their final moments of life: “Tell me all if you can about sorrows in your heart, things that you regret. Spell things out if you can. That you had in life, that you won’t forget. Don’t be afraid of nomad, I won’t hurt you bad. In your place some people would be glad. Don’t be afraid, my virtue, I won’t steal from you. I’m here for one thing that I owed you. Cause I’m your death.”
One of my favorites is the dark and haunting title track “Velvet Season.” The song opens with a foreboding piano riff and Bina softly singing. The music and her vocals gradually become more dramatic, conveying a sense of impending danger as the song grows more ominous. The keyboards and other synths are really fantastic. The song lyrics seem to be spoken to the vampire who’s kiss – i.e. bite – has forever changed her existence: “I know that you won’t feel the swelling that sucks the life out of me. / I already miss you, your kiss on my neck. We both know it clearly, there is no way back. / You ask me if I’m scared, yes I’m scared to close my eyes when I’m in bed. I’ll tell you, honey; there’s always a little reason to extend a bit my Velvet Season.” “With You” is a fine triphop song with grainy, otherworldly synths that impart a decidedly psychedelic vibe.
The album closes on a bittersweet note with the hauntingly beautiful “My Shoes.” The complex, layered synths on this track are exquisite, and accompanied by some wonderful guitar work. Bina’s heartfelt vocals are gorgeous, fervently expressing deep sorrow and regret over past sins and transgressions: “There is a time that I want to forget. For the peace of my mind. And if I just could I would erase it all, those horrible things. / Guess, my shoes didn’t fit you. My shoes didn’t fit you as they’re full of broken glass inside. Cause my traumas are full of crime.”
Velvet Season is a truly impressive debut for Still Optimist. Their captivating melodies, outstanding songwriting, and Mihaly’s creative and skillful use of synthesizers, makes for incredible and deeply compelling music. Toss in Bina’s amazing vocal abilities, and the result is a brilliant work of musical art. This is an album that can, and should, be listened to repeatedly, as the complexity of the compositions always offer up new discoveries.