A Lily – Saru l-Qamar (Phantom Limb)


This music is filled with ghosts. They cry out, muffled, distorted, these plaintive haunted wails, beautiful and reassuring, nostalgia from a bygone age. It’s vocals out of time coexisting with present, a cross generational connection in sound that has become something else, something new. A Lily is James Vella (yndi halda) who runs the excellent Phantom Limb label, and has previously released his music on the Sound in Silence, Blank Editions, Bytes, and p*dis. That said much of his previous work sounds quite different from Saru l-Qamar.

To understand Saru l-Qamar we have to go back to Malta. Since the 1960’s Maltese immigrants to the UK, Australia, North America, etc, would record their news onto cassette, often in the form of għana, a traditional Maltese song and mail the tapes back home. Malta’s non-profit heritage foundation Magna Żmien has collected and preserved many of these tapes, and in 2022 Vella (who is of Maltese origin) was granted access. Saru l-Qamar is the result.

Without a working knowledge of Maltese you’d think that this music would be out of reach, yet Vella’s gentle synthesis provides space and connection. There’s something about the age, the intimacy of the delivery of vocals, perhaps even the degraded quality of the cassette that connects us to the distance and longing. Language is not a barrier, in fact it facilitates this connection, as we’re tapping into something else, something intimate and personal – the raw emotion.

Vella’s synthesis and electronics are light and sparse, gentle washes of ambience that are not only really restrained and considered, but serve to elevate the aged recordings. There are no flourishes that draw any unnecessary attention away, rather everything feels connected. Strangely it doesn’t feel like the combination of two parts, or two worlds, instead it feels remarkably whole, as if this is how it was always meant to be.

I can’t say I’ve ever heard music like this. I’m reminded a little of Susumu Yokota’s first post house album Image 1983-1998 in terms of wisps of gentle sonics that bridge a connection to the past, but Saru l-Qamar is a very different proposition. There is something about these audio letters home, something about the lives left behind, the connection to a past that is so palpably emotional and its impossible not to connect to. Perhaps what’s so fascinating though is that in the creation of this album Vella is doing much the same, mirroring the journey of these tapes, reaching back into the past to commune with his own familial ghosts.


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.