Bored with making "safely bland" music, Sandy put her music career on pause six years ago so that she could figure out what she really wanted to do next. After four years of pondering what her artistic statement might be like, Sandy began work on Gaia (that's Greek for "the mother of the earth"). She spent two years working on the album, writing most of the songs herself, both in terms of the lyrics and the music, producing it in collaboration with Mainland music prodigy Chang Shilei. The resulting work is one of the most moving and exquisitely produced albums of the year.
Opening track "無言歌" (Google translation: "Speechless Song"), which Sandy has called her prayer for the world today, is a good predictor of what is to come. It begins with what sounds like monks chanting but once they've finished, dark electro sounds begin quietly and Sandy starts singing, her voice beautiful and haunting. A beat reminiscent of Emilie Simon eventually kicks in, giving the track its strong heartbeat. It's a song consisting of layers and layers of electro sounds that sometimes float past in the background and sometimes build-up to a magnificent breakdown.
Track two,"愛笑了" (Google: "Love To Laugh"), begins with loud, clattering drums and intense orchestration then we hear a wailing sound like something from a bleak sci-fi movie. There are slightly warmer electro-pop beats once Sandy starts singing, her vocals here quite intense, but it remains a rather ominous song that frequently sounds like it could be score from a Dario Argento film. It all builds to a rather climactic if frantic moment where all of the individual sounds we've heard thus far collide like a musical car crash. It's a bit unsettling but mesmerizing nevertheless.
While the album certainly has its moments of tension and confusion, it has just as many moments of bliss. "枯榮" (Google: "Impermanence"), for example, is one of the most enchanting songs you'll hear all year. Its piano, drums and assorted loops could be slightly menacing if taken alone, but Sandy sings it with yearning and vulnerability in her voice, delivering a precious performance that makes it one of the album's most uplifting songs.
The dream-like "Stay" also inspires warm feelings, pouring on layers and layers of pleasant sounds from the start, calling to mind the electro-pop of Caroline or even Bjork. It's a subtle but whimsical song that could probably pass for a lullaby.
Most of the songs on Gaia could be considered electronica, using the term loosely, but there are other influences as well. "紅眼眶" (Google: "Red Orbital") is essentially a jazz song both in terms of the light percussion and indelicate piano. "Cry," she sings, oh-so-softly, almost whispering, the song's sole word in English, and it's sure to tug at your heartstrings. The ballad "寂寞擁擠" (Google: "Lonely Crowded") also strays from the electro-template. It begins with faint piano and Sandy singing softly but grows in intensity as the song adds soaring strings and, eventually, a screaming, anxious guitar solo.
The only song on the album that sounds like traditional Chinese music is the endearing ballad "灰" (Google: "Gray"), which basically consists of bass guitar, drums and piano. "You will always be my little precious," Sandy sings, her voice warm and gorgeous. It's the second and only other appearance of English in her lyrics.
Ultimately, Gaia proves to be a magical album that takes the listener on a wondrous journey. It's full of amazing moments, some little and some grand, which add up to create a truly remarkable whole. It's a wildly imaginative album that will make you want to lean in close and catch every brilliant detail. -Michael McCarthy