House with bags of personality from one of Studio Barnhus's rising stars.
Whether it's been Axel Boman, Kornél Kovács or Baba Stiltz, the albums on Studio Barnhus have always created an engaging arc, blending the label's core house sound with dips into pop, ambient, electronica and other styles. This is something Gabriella Borbély does especially well here. Once Upon A Passion is nominally a dance record, but one that never settles into a steady thump. You could call the club tracks house music, although within that description there is plenty of tonal and rhythmic range. There are also moments of decompression and contemplation, with Borbély trying out pop, ambient and chill-out moods. None of this feels merely incidental, the product of a club producer making ambient under the misguided assumption that they should. If anything, some of the non-dance material is the album's strongest.
This might be explained by the breadth of Borbély's sonic tools. On the relaxed highlight "Tuesday," Nils Janson's dulcet trumpet pairs with piano, water droplets and alien vocal lines. Later, Janson appears on "Do The Right Thing" in pretty different surroundings—although slow and reflective to begin with, the track builds, with the help of Axel Boman on "acid bassline," into a bittersweet banger. "Stars," another standout, is also chilled—the faint sound of crickets and bird calls frames an amble through a meadow of assorted synths. "Way Chill" is more evidence of Borbély's knack for sofa styles, in this case through the use of hip-hop vocals from Def Sound and jazzy drum flourishes that might recall DJ Koze. Though "Your Girlfriend" won't be the most accomplished poppy torch song you hear this year, a full vocal turn from Borbély gives the album yet another texture to absorb.
The dance floor tracks are slightly more mixed in quality, but there is still plenty to like. The soaring arpeggio on "Can't Leave You Like This" is a bold way to open an album, especially as it gives way to a sprightly beat loaded with hand percussion and complemented by piano chords. "She's Back!" is a classy roller that sits somewhere between broken beat and garage—the strings and soulful vocal shots are on-point choices. It's difficult to say why "Hotel Europa" and "Flightmode" work less well. They're as tonally rich and invitingly strange as the others but just never quite catch an arresting groove. Still, Once Upon A Passion is an album that's easy to get swept along with. In a recent review of the newest Robag Wruhme album, I'd placed Borbély in a category alongside Wruhme, DJ Koze, Roman Flügel, Axel Boman and Kornél Kovács, artists who mix surprising or humorous sounds with emotions like sadness and melancholy. Once Upon A Passion confirms that she deserves to keep such company.