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Music Review - `The Maze' by Ariana Gillis (jh)

Ariana Gillis - The Maze (click on image to watch video)


Ariana Gillis is a Canadian artist, hailing from just outside Toronto, with a distinctive, often fragile soprano voice that sets her apart from most.  It’s instantly recognizable and captivating.  The Maze is only her third full-length album, coming with a seven gap since 2012’s Forget Me Not. Much of that gap traces to bouts with depression and a devastating concussion that laid her up. Her dad, David Gillis, a co-producer here, is an award-winning songwriter and guitarist. Her story, leading up to this effort, is the fortuitous convergence of a few events which we’ll touch on briefly.

From her beginnings and family pedigree, it was immediately clear that Ariana would be a force. She won Songwriter of the Year at the 2009 Niagara Music Award, followed by Female Vocalist and Album of the Year in 2010, as well as 2009 Canadian Folk Music Award Young Performer of the Year. She networked music conferences which led to a quick two-song performance for Dave Marsh in Memphis, following the release of her second album. Marsh then played Gillis on his XM radio show, which turned the ears of songwriter Bernie Taupin and eventually the other co-producer here, Buddy Miller. She suffered a long-to-diagnose concussion in 2015 that left her unable to perform. Eventually, she recovered and long-time fan Miller recorded The Maze live-off-the-floor in his now famous home studio in Nashville with notable Nashville fixtures Colin Linden and Jim Hoke, among others.

As you listen it’s not clear whether she aspires to be a pop star or will stay rooted in this vague, rootsy sound that’s more smooth than gritty. Aside from that, it’s a bit daunting, knowing that she has the ears of Marsh, Maupin, and Miller to cast any dispersions.  She must be terrific, right?  No doubt, there are standout tracks here, especially when she brings the energy of  the opener, “Dirt Gets Dirty,” “White Blush” and “Slo Motion Killer.” There’s melodic dramatic flair and impressive vocal range in “Jeremy Woodstock” and “Rock It Like Fantastic.” Yet, the lasting impression is her ruminating material that rules the album with seemingly directionless mellow strains. It certainly sounds introspective, vulnerable, and at times existential.  These lyrics from the title track and her recent struggles would suggest a dark place – “Remember when we were young, we were warned to keep away./The the ground around the maze was mute and bleak, a dirty grave./And all at night we’d hear our fears coming alive in there.” It takes very focused listened to appreciate songs like - “The Feeling of Empty,” “Lost With You and “Dream Street,” especially the haunting nature of the latter about a young singer with an abusive father missing her mother.  

Gillis will quickly garner attention with her unique voice and unusual narrative songs, but she may just as quickly lose you too. For many, it will take several listens to be completely won over. Those repeated listens will reinforce that first great impression.  She does clearly stand apart.


Jim Hynes



Jim Hynes is an independent contributor on music for several magazines, including Elmore and Country Standard Time. He has also written for Variety. He was a listener-supported public station(s) radio host for 25 years in CT, MI, NJ and PA. He is also a Live music host/Emcee at several national and regional venues.




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