By design, concept albums are meant to convey more complex ideas and conjure up mental imagery. From the very onset of Tori Amos’ sweeping and ambitious studio album, Night Of Hunters, it’s as if a curtain has been raised on an invisible stage, setting the tone for the beautiful melodrama that is to follow. If anyone can pull off a classical crossover album, it’s the shape-shifting, singer-songwriter Tori Amos.
The former piano prodigy had toyed with classical elements and conceptual albums as far back as Boys for Pele in 1996 and as recent as her seasonal outing on Midwinter Graces, but never had she had such an opportunity to put her classical prowess on full display than on Night Of Hunters.
Having been approached by classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, Amos was tasked with creating a 21st-century song cycle that took into account classical works from the last 400 years. With such a high-minded goal, Amos provided a track-by-track guide as well as an explanation behind the concept:
“I have used the structure of a song cycle to tell an ongoing, modern story. The protagonist is a woman who finds herself in the dying embers of a relationship. In the course of one night she goes through an initiation of sorts that leads her to reinvent herself allowing the listener to follow her on a journey to explore complex musical and emotional subject matter. One of the main themes explored on this album is the hunter and the hunted and how both exist within us.”
Mythology, gender dynamics, and relationships
Mythology, gender dynamics, and relationships are familiar themes for Amos, but it’s the way she adapts the masters and uses chamber music as the medium to create something that’s relevant to the times. Over the course of her two-decade and a half career, she has experimented with combinations of rock, folk, cabaret, and pop and now classical, with her Bösendorfer piano and crystalline voice remaining constant.
To those well-versed in classical recordings, they will appreciate the meticulous orchestration of reeds, winds, and strings provided by clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer and the Apollon Musagete string quartet and arranged by longtime collaborator John Philip Shenale that accompany Amos’ siren song. For those who are more familiar with her pop oeuvre, Hunters offers a whirlwind introduction to the works of Satie, Chopin, Granados, Schubert, and Bach that plays more like a fever dream-cum-film score.
As the album’s protagonist, Amos meets a series of mythical characters some of which are sung by her niece Kelsey Dobyns and her then 10-year-old daughter Natasha, as Anabelle the Fox, all set within a chamber music setting. While Natasha’s vocals still maintain a child-like quality, the interplay between mother and daughter on “Battle Of Trees” (based on Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 1”) and “Job’s Coffin” (inspired by Mendelssohn’s “Nautical Twilight”), works within this musical-like ambiance.
While Amos has always straddled the line between confessional and storytelling songwriting, this album blurs it even further.
Given her dominant presence of the record, due credit should be given to Shenale’s arrangements, who never overshadows Amos’ piano, but simply underscores to create a backdrop of gripping drama and stirring orchestration, with just acoustic instruments at his disposal.
Neo-pagan classical concept albums don’t easily lend themselves to singles, after all a song cycle is meant to be listened to in one sitting, but it’s the last song on the album, “Carry,” that was released as a digital single with an accompanying music video. A variation on one of the French composer Claude Debussy’s preludes: “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (Girl with the Flaxen Hair), it’s one of the most accessible songs on the album, reimagining a composition from 1909 into a modern examination of the relationships that disappear from your life without being forgotten.
No matter where your musical tastes lie, Night Of Hunters shows Amos at her vocal and musical peak, a grand recital that everyone was waiting for all these years. Always painted as this otherworldly chanteuse, Amos embraces the whimsical head-on with emotional tenacity and technical brilliance. As she told Out Magazine, “In some ways, I’ve been working with myth all along. It excites me. It’s potent, it’s in all of us.”