Your Sacred Life: The Mysteries of Saira Raza’s Inertia

Saira Raza‘s new LP, INERTIA, is a lovely, meditative, experimental album that explores themes of transformation and stillness on the individual as well as the planetary level. It’s the rare kind of album that reveals its secrets slowly, unfurling more with each listen until you feel profoundly, deeply touched.

The album’s title refers to the tendency of objects to resist any shifts in their state of motion or stillness. Thematically, songs approach this topic by exploring those shifts, which ultimately force transformation. As Raza pointed out in an interview with Crib Notes,

Inertia is misunderstood as that one moment where you notice the change [from motion into stasis or vice versa], but it’s actually the tendency to stay in the same state of motion. It’s a subtle difference, but it struck me. We only really notice how much we’ve stayed the same when something comes along and changes it — we can fight it, resist, roll with it, whatever. But no matter what, those external conditions still change you in some way, even if it is only in the awareness of how long you have stayed the same without even noticing it before.

The album thus explores movement in all of its possible expressions, from the pregnant stasis of silence to the charged creative fields of improvisation. It opens with “Temple Dancer,” which invokes the heat of ceremonial fire blown down from some mountaintop temple by the gentlest breath of wind. Wordless vocals sway into a haunting minor key that then shifts into a meditative medley of strings and soft percussion. This otherworldly, reverent mood continues through the album. It is the core of each song, tying the pieces together like a string of gold.

Percussion opens the next song, with beats that drop you into a nighttime landscape of forest sounds. There is again something ceremonial about the beats, which lead into the swell of the vocals, accompanied by eerie cello: “Friend, take a walk with me/ to the mountain of cedar trees/ against the odds we’ll take our stand/ two-thirds god, one-third man.” This song, like the others on the album, are not often the kind you sing along to. Rather, you are taken on a journey. Although the percussion at the base layer of the music stays the same and a few strands of sound return, the song shifts from moment to moment, leading you deeper along the sonorous paths it forges. The song’s title, “Gilgamesh,” takes its name (and some details, like the Cedar Mountain) from what is believed to be one of the oldest works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s apparent at this point that myth-weaving is what Raza is up to.

Saira Raza. Photo: Roni Nicole for Moving Pictures

Saira Raza. Photo: Roni Nicole for Moving Pictures

“Momentum” follows, opening with lilting sounds of percussion and vibraphone that fall like rain on leaves. A brooding string sequence comes in, along with deep, mysterious vocals. Again, it feels like we are witnessing something religious, a sylvan pagan rite that is both solemn and fully, expressively joyful. The song careens through registers and crescendos to almost dizzying levels. As Dionysian as it gets, though, it also remains deeply grounded.

“Inertia” is a darker track, moving into more industrial, heavier territory. While “Momentum” seemed to revel in freedom of movement, this song feels somehow stickier, pulsing rather than arcing. It’s a counterpoint to “Momentum’s” “jocund dance.” The instrumentation matches the vocals, which reiterate the message conveyed by the heavier tone:

It’s our natural tendency/ To stay exactly as we are.

At the very end, though, the song is filled up with sound. The heaviness of the electric guitar is replaced for a moment by psychedelic synth tones and the more forgiving and gliding sound of the cello, before a static buzzing of white noise wipes everything away. It may be our natural tendency to stay where we are, Raza seems to say, but it’s also impossible to do.

“High Tide” moves us back into a dreamland of starlit seas. After the weight of “Inertia” it feels like a relief to float along with this song. Producer 10th Letter (Jeremi Johnson) adds his synth beats here (as he does on many of the songs) to great effect, providing some texture and shape to the free-form mood of the piece. Raza’s voice is also particularly lovely here, shaping the poetic vocals with a particularly resonant quality. The end of the song breaks out into earthy, reverberating beats that seem to bring the land to the sea. Again, we are moving.

“Sources of Heat” takes us from water into fire, leading us deep into the center of solar flares and the heat-driven processes of energy consumption and decomposition that drive life on our world. The percussion picks up and a robotic voice delivers a scientific reading on heat, growth, death, and transformation from an early 20th century textbook. The music swells and takes us from earth to the heavens, ending with the celestial notes of Raza’s own voice as well as synth sounds that seem to have been beamed in from realms of interstellar travel.

A jangly cymbal tap leads us into “Mercurial Mirror,” a song which is the aural manifestation of the title, a silvery, quick-flowing celebration of the impermanence of all things. Strange buzzes and blips, like cell phones and doorbells, fade in and out of the song while Raza’s laugh and playful handclaps float over all.

The final track, “Breadcrumbs,” opens with the mellifluous swells of the cello, which is met by a quickening bassline and a tapping of cymbals. The song’s opening is probably the most traditionally jazz-inflected on the album. It relaxes into a rhythm that is more meditative, allowing Raza’s words to come to the forefront. The message here is powerful as Raza comments on all the forces we listen to that don’t originate in our own hearts. This song is a perfect ending, and is an illustration of the album’s full power. The lyrics open with a statement on how we are driven by external societal pressures that give us nothing to feed our souls:

Follow the rules
Follow the leader
Follow the money
Follow the path
Breadcrumbs for your sacred life

By the end of the song, though, the message shifts entirely. Whereas breadcrumbs signified the valueless, material things that we are given in turn for sacrificing ourselves to success, at they end they lead us home:

Follow the milk
Follow the honey
Follow the sweetness
Of a knowing heart
Follow the path
Breadcrumbs for your sacred life

The more I listen to this album, the more profound and beautiful it becomes. It reveals its secrets slowly but lovingly. It’s experimental, but in a way that is never pretentious or inaccessible. Like the most sacred of rites, it is built on mysteries that are only suitably appreciated after some initiation.

Although Raza brings in other artists, including 10th Letter, Dylan Banks, and Eric Grantham (of deadCAT), she is the heart and soul of the album and plays almost everything herself (she also did the cover art). It is, in all ways, an impressive and highly moving finished work. INERTIA is now available to purchase on Bandcamp, and is streaming on SoundCloud.

Saira Raza. Photo: Roni Nicole for Moving Pictures

Saira Raza. Photo: Roni Nicole for Moving Pictures



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