Despite not being a particularly religious person, I have a long-standing fascination with devotional music. I have a big soft spot for gospel; classical masses stir my soul, with a special place reserved for kyries (none more so than that from Haydn’s “Nelson Mass”); I went through a long stretch of digging into medieval Christian polyphony. There is something about the spiritual potency that comes with wanting to make a pleasing noise unto the Lord that manages to resonate even within my heathen heart. Which may be part of why I enjoy Chris Russell’s Illuminoid. In his “journey into the realm of the spirit,” Russell mixes ambient textures with varying forms of vocal expressions of devotion and ritual, from Gregorian chant to prayer to throat singing. On my initial listen, I worried that this was going to come off heavy-handed, something of slowed-down revisitation of Chant and everything Enigma’s ever done. But no. Prior to this release, Russell specialized in extremely soft and deep flows, richly layered and calming. That feeling is most decidedly here as well, and he matches that by not overdoing to vocal drops. The Gregorian chant in the midst of “Benediction” slides in and out of the ambient haze like a recurring memory; now vivid, now distant, now gone. The plaintive voice in “Hildegard” rises high above an ambient wash; Russell has found an amazing, heart-piercing song to use here. It simply stops time, and he dials back the sounds around it to let it shine. And if you like the soul-shaking rasp of throat singing (as I do), “Sanctum” is just the thing. Surrounded my slightly eerie drones that bring up memories of Roach’s Spirit Dome, this guttural prayer heads straight into your primal spirit. It’s not just about the voices, however. As noted, Russell’s base structures are tone-perfect ambient drifts, quite capable of lifting your mind up and away. I also like the rich pipe-organ tones of “Cathedral.” Big and sanctified-sounding and hit with a perfect touch of reverb to replicate the spatial aspects of a church.
Illuminoid is a bit of a risk. It would have been entirely too easy to overload the vocal side of the equation here and fall a bit too far into gimmick territory–a gimmick that’s been done enough. Russell manages to find a superb balance, which lets the singing retain its spiritual energy. It’s not shoehorned into beats to be something new. Instead, Russell builds around it and in doing so creates a nicely meditative release with a little extra boost for your spiritual side. Let it loop.