Heavyhead – Sylvana Joyce & the Moment (released December 15, 2017)
by Gargs Allard
Sylvana Joyce starts Heavyhead off as if making a pact between herself and the listener, ”I’ve got a secret; tell me babe, can you keep it? A trusting soul is just so hard to find…” and so begins 56 minutes of colorful gypsy patchwork –or an exotic conglomeration of contemporary prog rock, whose tracks and music are as dramatically laid out as the players on the record are talented and creative.
That first song, “I Am Disease,” is a dark, yet powerfully truthful start to “Heavyhead,” which anyone who dares listen to can identify with. After all, who has made it through life without disease or death touching someone close to them? And who will go through life without it eventually coming to claim them as well? Perhaps, Sylvana drew from her mother’s long battle with Parkinson’s disease when she wrote this song.
“I Am Disease” is beautifully sung, but with tragedy running through its veins. It is upfront and direct, like the first track on the record – a song about a subject matter that is generally swept under the rug or spoken of in hushed tones. It is a dark comedic ode to life itself, so precious to have but so threatened by its natural enemy disease that eventually there’s nowhere to turn but an artful expression of the inevitable helplessness of it all. It is a sand-in-your-pudding type of melody that makes you want to smile and cry at the same time at its sad wonder. The heavy and penetrating lyrics “I am disease… as I wreck your body” create an unsettling contrast with the exquisite music.
In an interview I conducted with Sylvana several years ago, the multi-talented pianist and singer-songwriter said she started playing piano at the age of 5, and got a full scholarship shortly thereafter from the Third Street Music School on the Lower East Side. Later, she attended college at the Conservatory of Music at Boston University. She was also a child actress who worked on Broadway, and without doubt, you can feel the drama all over her music.
And just as much as theater is in her music, music is in her blood. Her grandfather George Sbârcea (aka Claude Romano) was a famous Romanian writer, translator, journalist, music composer, musicologist and traveling bandleader, whose songwriting blended Romanian folk tradition with Argentinian tango. Sylvana seems to have inherited many of her grandfather’s talents and says her first love would be to write novels. And in her songs, it almost seems like Sylvana is weaving stories of fact from fiction and fiction from fact as well.
When she says, “I’m one of them,” in “Vultures,” she expresses the realization that we are all ultimately food for our children and their generation, however you want to take it, just as we were vultures of our parents and their generation. Children may feel guilty about this as they age but most parents are willing to sacrifice everything for their children, and you can think of all of these things as you listen to this song.. With guarantees in life like taxes, death and the blackness of night during a new moon, there is also a near-guarantee that there will be “vultures” circling around both our flesh and estate as we die, to pluck out the remains of our earthly coil and former good karma for their own sustenance. A listener without too much wax in their ears will get it when Sylvana says she’s one of them. We’re all one of them for the most part. Of course, this is a natural rite of a child but Sylvana’s poetic expression makes this one a Halloween delight, replete with wicked chuckles, as she does her best female impersonation of Ozzy Osbourne.
“Encore” could possibly be argued as the strongest track on the album, with the elements of everything a band of musicians worth their New York road salt might utilize in a good tune. From the hook “you crossed your fingers,” to Chris Smith’s rocking guitar; and from Sylvana’s exquisite piano and defiant shouts to Ben Krupit’s soothing flute – this song proves that SJM can pull off a kickin’ rock ‘n roll song – and one that has potential hit written all over it.
The background singers throughout the record sound nice together. – Sylvana Joyce herself, Sean-David Cunningham, Peter Bellomo, Chris Smith, Jeremy Sauber, Isabel Culpepper, Valerie Reaper, Janna Pelle and Mike Krupit all make the record sound like the band got the help of Muscle Shoals itself to fill out the production.
The Chris Smith penned “Lick” adds a dose of cock rock to the mix.. In it, Smith’s guitar invokes Joe Perry, while Sylvana belts it out somewhere east and west of Pat Benatar and Joan Jett.
Currently, my favorite part of the album are cuts five, six, and seven, where you’ll find the songs “There’s a Gypsy,” “Queen,” and “Cin Cin” respectively. This middle point of the album sounds almost medieval, as if the spirit of Ronnie James Dio had entered Sylvana’s body. The specter of the arena rock band Kansas also seems to be invoked.
“There’s A Gypsy” seems to allude to the gypsy in Sylvana and one’s inherited knowledge of metaphysical powers.
And speaking of power, Sylvana and band are in full power in perhaps my favorite song on the record, “Queen.” If you lose yourself in it, the song can make you feel like you’re a character from “Game of Thrones.” Her voice is commanding and when Sylvana speak-sings during the refrain, it reminds one of Blondie’s “Rapture,” and Madonna’s “Vogue” rolled into one.
“Cin Cin” could be the album’s second single. Sylvans’s loud, fast whisper goes well with this march-romp of a song. “I don’t want to play by your rules .. because they suck,” and “Life is better when you choose” are memorable lines.
The bands players, all quite accomplished on their own, answered a Craigslist ad that seemed to imply they could actually play in a band for a living eventually if they joined Sylvana. Years later, they not only like a tight band but a close-knit family as well. Besides taking the role of the lead vocals, Joyce also plays the acoustic piano and melodica. Her fiancé Chris Smith, a talented songwriter in his own right, plays the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar, the electric sitar and the glockenspiel; Jaime DeJesus plays the electric bass; while Jack Breslin plays the upright bass; Sean-David Cunningham violins and viola, Dara Hankins the cello; Jeremy Sauber the drums, and Ben Krupit the trumpet, trombone, tuna, cornet and flute.
“Bones” is an upbeat rocker about intuition that combines guitar with strings and Sylvana’s wide-ranging vocal prowess. “Clean” is an interesting lengthy rock ballad written by Chris Smith, whose precise guitar work beckons the ‘90s alternate rock sound, and whose lyrics seem to indicate that no matter how a lover may define us, somewhere underneath it all is the real person. The strings give this song a sense of majesty. Joyce’s piano at the end is a nice touch.
“Gavel” is like an intense poem that starts at a slow pace and then builds into periods of heavy metal, before finally morphing into a classical gospel serenade toward the direction of one’s real self.
The record needs to be listened to repeatedly to truly appreciate it, but you feel like Sylvana has revealed at least a few secrets about herself, even after the first go round; and the album will reveal more as you vote yourself to it.Share on social media