2021 was supposed to cement the renaissance of Pauline Anna Strom. The electronic music composer originally self-released her music in the early 1980s, though it never resonated far outside the New Age cottage industry. Her music wasn’t enough to cover her rent in the San Francisco Tenderloin District, so Strom sold off all of her equipment by decade’s end, becoming a Reiki master instead. In the intervening years, the blind-since birth composer’s idiosyncratic approach to synthesizer-based music—intuitive, asymmetrical, destabilizing—resonated with a new generation of explorers. Thanks in part to her inclusion on 2017’s much needed compendium Trans-Millenia Music, Strom realized she had fans ranging from MGMT and Caroline Polachek to Avalon Emerson. Buoyed by so many new listeners, she returned to music-making and was set to perform as part of the home-listening live concert series Oda (programmed alongside the likes of Madlib and Arca) and release her first album in 33 years.
Instead, Angel Tears in Sunlight arrives posthumously, as Strom passed away in December of last year. Perhaps she knew that her work might make sense in a future era, right down to the name she originally chose to release music under—Trans-Millenia Consort—which literally translates as “crossing time companion,” suggesting that the composer’s perception of that concept was vaster and deeper than most. “If I made music now, I’d be something else,” she stated in the liner notes to Trans-Millenia Music, as much a prophecy as her prior recorded work. Rather than sounding like an epitaph, though, Angel Tears arrives as a beacon of hope and change. The lightest and most playful of Strom’s recorded work, it signals new vistas ahead, ones that sadly will now have to be explored by others.
“Tropical Convergence” teems with chimes and gurgling layers, suggesting sunlight reflecting on water. Strom’s work was often evocative, at times suggesting the more turbid mind states of the human experience (she titled some songs “Freebasing” and “Mushroom Trip” despite never dabbling in anything stronger than alcohol), but there’s a distinct lightness here, as if unburdening the worldly concerns of the past few years. The moving, minor-key “I Still Hope” ascends steadily towards its titular aspiration in two brief minutes.
Rather than track down the analog gear and tape machines from her past, Strom acquired new synthesizers for the new album. The unfamiliarity gives the album an exploratory feel, freeing Strom to dive down every rabbit hole, even adding in recordings of her two pet iguanas. “Marking Time”—with its dizzying un-gendered voice samples– isn’t far removed from Oneohtrix Point Never’s “He She” or SOPHIE’s bubblegum choirs. “The Pulsation” foregrounds her previously buried rhythmic experimentations: slippery drum patterns and polyrhythms arise from all corners of the track, full of struck metallic tones and synths acting like wild bird calls, the track dense as jungle foliage. “Equatorial Sunrise” explores similar rhythms with a glowing synth patch.
Only on “The Eighteen Beautiful Memories” does Strom recall the dark ambient contours of her early work. Against a slow-evolving sine wave, a poignant synth line emerges, offering a glint of brightness before receding away. “I dream in color,” she told one interviewer. “I’ve always seen things in my mind. I don’t know how else to interpret it.” Her song titles often reflected whatever her mind was on, be it impressions of far-off lands or Gothic horror. From the titles to the music itself, Angel Tears in Sunlight captures Strom turning her mind’s eye towards something warmer and more radiant than her prior work suggested, which might be as simple as the heat lamp for her iguanas or something more cosmic. Lamentably for us, she then moved fully towards that light.
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