Stoa have been making critically acclaimed neo-classical / ethereal music since 1991. Not an especially prolific band, with only three full releases under their belts in those eleven plus years, it is apparent that principal songwriter Olaf Parusel takes his time composing, arranging and envisioning his stirring music. A lot of artists apply the term ‘neo-classical’ to describe their music, but few truly seem to base their music on classical theory. And even fewer produce convincing synthetic ethereal music. Olaf’s arrangements are rich and impressive in their authenticity – much of this album sounds as if it was actually performed by a flesh and blood orchestra. The presence of cellist Christiane Fischer provides an even more organic touch, and the soft soprano vocals of Mandy Bernhardt are beautiful and powerful all the same. I was getting pretty worn out on the whole ‘angelic’ female vocal thing there for a while, but Ms. Bernhardt’s vocals are an aural treat and her delivery and tone has more in common with Dawn Upshaw or Rene Fleming than with the latest amateur ‘Goth’ siren.
Included here are ten sublime original compositions, and one venerable cover of an early and wonderfully moving Black Tape For A Blue Girl song entitled “I Wish You Could Smile.” The overall feeling of the CD is one of a tender melancholy and quiet reflection. Predominantly centered on buoyant orchestral strings, passages of reverberated pianos and soft mournful oboes, Zal” unfolds like a single, coherent piece of symphonic music, with various movements, interludes, and refrains. Though an intimate release, it is still quite interesting and holds the listener spellbound, rather than lull them into a kind of soporific ennui. This release is comprised of fascinating and captivating music, mellow but intriguing all the same. I found myself listening intently to the flow of the music, wondering what instrument will be introduced next, what metamorphosis the melodies will take, and in what manner the layers of melody will merge together. Stoa’s music is transcendent and spirits the listener to a gray world of nostalgic dream and promising reverie, beautiful but not overly so. Sweet yet tempered with a darker undercurrent of the ominous. This is an extraordinarily good release for fans of ethereal, cinematic, or symphonic music, and I highly recommend it to readers with more refined tastes for classical and the like. The female vocals are truly heavenly, the cello passages utterly gorgeous, and the arrangements are perfectly fashioned and well designed. But above all, this CD succeeds in stirring the heart, and provides the perfect respite and trancelike escape for the listener. Sublime and profoundly affective, you won’t regret adding this CD to your collection. --- Matthew Heilman