REVIEW | Embrace the Storm - Jessica Williamson
I have been following Jessica Williamson’s music since essentially the beginning. In 2013, I stumbled onto her music on SoundCloud because Josh Mancell, the composer of the soundtracks for the original Crash Bandicoot games had reposted some of her remixes of his work. I looked into her original music, liked what I heard, and now, six years later, here I am writing this review. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I’m immensely thankful to Jessica Williamson for the honor of being asked to give my thoughts on her new album in time to coincide with its release. I’m never going to pretend my opinions are objective, but hopefully my claims are educational one way or another.
Embrace the Storm by Jessica Williamson is aptly described by a phrase she used, “Ambient Rock”, having the energy and drive of rock music, but with that energy being focused more toward an emotionally powerful, consuming sound, rather than toward djenting faces off (not that there’s anything wrong with that, for the record). The album art does a good job giving the feel of the album itself without you having to hear any of it, the dark background and central lightning bolt striking Jessica’s piano even giving a hint of what the flavor of the sound will be.
I’m going to assume you have seen the album art if you’re reading this review, and if not, please look at it. It’s great.
Embrace the Storm is an album about growth, overcoming life’s challenges, and emerging the better for it. Sometimes growth is hard. Sometimes life is scary. Embrace the Storm is about accepting those intimidating hardships and moving forward toward the better place on the other side. Thematically, the music has an aggressive and grand feel that mirrors the storm in the title, which is something that, while Jessica Williamson is no stranger to it, has not been featured in her music to this degree before. While all the songs build up this theme, they all add something distinct to the overall message, each having a different feel and conveying different aspects of the complete message.
Brave, the first track, gives an impression of confidence, as if the artist is raring to go, ready to tackle what lies ahead. The song builds momentum, percussion, keyboards, and guitars intensifying, toward a climax that implies the struggle has been overcome. The instruments come together in the second half of the song in a wall of sound that resembles a rush of adrenaline when a challenge is being met. Also, as the track’s title indicates, it is a remastered version of Jessica’s 2017 single, and in my opinion, yes, this is the superior version.
Track Two, Potential, is a newer style for Jessica Williamson, but one she handles well. The guitar sound chosen for the backing chords meshes perfectly with the rest of the instruments. The song has a feeling of great tension being released, symbolized (or maybe cymbal-ized) by both the pensive cymbals and wide synth chorus during a calm section in the otherwise steady melody, and the following return to the full energy of the song. The bridge reminds me of something the Cryoshell might produce, and that’s a good thing. It’s powerful and the transition from it to the final stanza is seamless, yet appreciably well handled.
Fortify Me, Track Three, is the rocking-est thing Jessica Williamson has ever produced, and it maintains a strong pace throughout its running time. The power chord riff is awesome, and the climactic ending leaves the listener amped up and ready for whatever might come next. The song is structured more similarly to a typical rock song than the others in the album, with a slightly varied chorus-like refrain, but the "verses" are still closer to "movements" in a compositional sense, so, at the end of the day, it defies classification as pure rock. The song’s feel is also very similar to that of an Evanescence song. Its melody almost feels like it was intended to be sung, a four-note phrase in the refrain that, to my ears at least, implies a chant of the title, “Fortify Me”, as would be expected from a rock chorus. Intended to be sung or not, the melody is a strong point in this track, and I found myself humming along to it.
The fourth track, Wiser, has a nearly constant keyboard line as a grounding undertone, like a stream of clear thought, while the incoming harsher guitars are like determination and certainty, bolstering the clear direction to life that comes with greater understanding and experience. Speaking of understanding, it has a similar feel to another song of Jessica’s, “Understanding” from Precious Paces. This makes sense, given the close relationship between understanding and wisdom - even across albums, Jessica Williamson’s musical language remains consistent. It has been said that in the mind of the novice are many possibilities, and that in the mind of the master there are few, and this song ends with a single instrument, a single voice giving direction for the next steps along the path of life.
To me, the combination of gentle string plucks and calm synths of the fifth track, In My Own Time, resembles the sound of rushing water or of leaves blowing in the wind, a relaxing tone that encourages patience rather than haste, as if to say, “I'll get there when I'm ready.” The bass drum beat sounds like a heartbeat, the fundamental pacing element of the human body, and I love the warm, subtle bass synth line, something that would probably be missed on less-than-amazing headphones or in a heavily compressed audio format. The song is clearly divided into two halves, the first half implying the wait before the artist moves forward with the challenge at hand, and the second half implying the moment the artist finally makes their move, the midrange joining the high and low ends and bringing completeness to the soundscape. Even in the second half, however, the steady keyboard line still speaks of there being no rush, that even though progress is finally being made, it’s still happening in the artist’s own time.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh tracks of the album transition smoothly to one another when played in sequence, and the transitions between the tracks are handled in a way that carries the listener smoothly from one track to another, yet segregates the tracks so that they feel complete without each other. The sixth track, In Retrospect, provides a kind of appositive phrase between In My Own Time and Turning Point. It ends similarly to how it begins, so it could be left out and yet (much like a parenthetical statement in a sentence) the meaning of the other two songs would be retained, which can only add the the experience, not detract from it.
Transitioning in from the interlude of the sixth track, the seventh, Turning Point, seems to tell a story with its composition. It has two sections, and each half first establishes a calm, rhythmic state with keyboard lines and ambient synths and then adds energy by introducing guitars. However, while the first section introduces energy in a way that implies building to a breaking point, the second section introduces energy to indicate relief and determination. First change becomes necessary, and once past the turning point, it becomes clear it was for the better. The composition of this track is flawless to my ears, and I happily follow the artist down this path of healthy change every time I listen to it.
Recover, the eighth track, follows the path of healing from damage incurred during a struggle, emotional, psychological, or physical. It starts with a melancholy tone, probably to give the impression of stinging wounds, and over time the more optimistic keyboard part picks up momentum as the subject begins to heal. The keyboard line’s high points have a straining quality, like the subject is stretching to their limit, grasping at the healing just within their reach. The keyboard line also provides a good sense of momentum as the healing continues, calling to mind the image of someone climbing a ladder to safety. While the keyboard melody is certainly centric to the composition, the soothing synths convey rejuvenation as they intensify throughout the song. The final measures of the song feature a ritardando, the slackening pace reflecting the relief of having finally recovered from a harsh struggle. As a side note, I’m unsure which key is used for the arrangement, but it’s an excellent choice for the somber, yet hopeful subject matter.
The ninth and final track, Weightless Breath, feels like the musical version of a relieved, satisfied sigh, and follows up on Recover quite appropriately. It exudes the vibe of a hopeful credits theme after a film, the optimistic synth ambience escalating to provide the sensation of light breaking through the storm clouds after a rain. Just listen to it. The piano work is fantastic, and it makes you feel feelings, and it does it so well. Even the several seconds of silence at the end of the track, preventing the listener from moving on until after some time of reflection, is intentional.
As a whole, Embrace the Storm carries themes of maturity and growth across all nine tracks, each track representing different facets of the process of overcoming one’s problems and building fortitude to reach their full potential as they find relief on the other side of their struggles. While each song supports the same central idea, each has something different to say about it. While some musical releases are collections of somewhat unrelated songs (not that there’s anything wrong with that, either), Embrace the Storm is a cohesive whole that provides a unified experience through and through.
That experience is one that’s great for listening in many contexts, be it intentionally, like I did while preparing for this review, or in the background, like I did while writing this review. The album is best listened to in order, particularly since In My Own Time, In Retrospect, and Turning Point transition into each other, but because of how cleanly the transitions are handled, it doesn’t matter too much, either. In fact, while I listened to the album initially on a pair of ATH-M40x studio monitors from local system storage, I can confirm that on lower-fidelity audio sources, the sharp endings of the transitional tracks are less noticeable, so it can be easy to forget that you’re listening to the album the wrong way (I’m joking, of course; listen to music as you please).
While all the songs have a similar tone, they also feel unique. You won’t miss where one track ends and another begins (a problem I have with some other ambient music), with the possible exception of tracks five, six, and seven, which, as detailed before, is deliberate. Each song has a cadence chosen for its topic, as well, examples being the constantly powerful Fortify Me, In My Own Time with its central reprieve, and the beautifully mellow Weightless Breath. Every song has a full, wide soundscape that conveys its emotional intent powerfully, but the composition is always solid enough that even somewhat lower-fidelity audio sources can provide a head-bopping rendition of the track. In general, the melodic focus in this album is also stronger than in Jessica Williamson’s previous music, and entire album has a "classical" feel, where the music is built on layers and phrases. Yet, unlike some classical music that was just music for the sake of music, this music has a clear purpose and idea it's trying to communicate. Jessica is a pianist at her core, and it definitely shows. The piano work is, across the board, the best thing about the arrangements, and even so, the accompanying instrumentation is stronger here than they've been in her previous work, with more variation in the use of broad synth ambience and guitar riffs. Every single aspect of this album feels deliberate, which is more than I can say for the work of many more prolific and well-known musicians, even some whose work I greatly enjoy.
You have probably noticed I have not spoken one bit about lyrics. There are none. For real, though, does it sound like this album needs them? Embrace the Storm is emotions and abstract concepts injected directly into your brain, without the need for clarification of words. It doesn’t make you think and calculate the meaning using verbal language, it makes you feel and experience its message through musical language. This is the best thing about Jessica Williamson’s music and the main reason I love it so much. She has done some more experimental music in the past, and while those songs are good, even great, in their own ways (don’t get me wrong, I also like her lyrical music), I feel she has been at her best when she’s relating life experience by simply having you feel it as she sweeps you up in melodic musical momentum, and that’s all this album does. It’s one of the most pure forms of musical expression, and it’s a kind of mastery of the art form that I am mystified by as much as I adore it. The themes of the album relate to growing up, and as someone who’s followed Jessica Williamson’s music from nearly the beginning, I can say that, with Embrace the Storm, it feels like her musical identity has grown up, as well. Any negative criticism I could bring to the table feels like nitpicking in the face of everything that’s been accomplished here. It’s not only the best album that has been made by Jessica Williamson, it’s also the best example of Jessica Williamson’s music.
Thanks to you for reading my review, and thanks once again to Jessica Williamson for asking me to write this. I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on the album, and maybe understand where I’m coming from. If you are a person who enjoys music in general, you can’t go wrong with Embrace the Storm by Jessica Williamson. Just go for it. My life is better with her music in it, and I suspect yours will be, too.