It’s probably not easy to find a musician’s story more intriguing than the one behind Memorybell. A long-time musician, Grant Hazard Outerbridge awoke in a hospital in February 2014 with no memory of how he got there. He was diagnosed with transient global amnesia, a condition that causes the brain to temporarily stop making new memories. When he could get back to creating music, he found that the music he had been making prior to his amnesia seemed “garish.” He then set about redefining his sound and identity, creating emotionally evocative, stunningly spare piano pieces as Memorybell. His first outing, Obsolete, embraces the beauty not just of a minimalist structure, but also the pensive, unspoken thoughts that come to us in the space of a meaningful pause. This is a lonely-sounding album, but lonely without getting morose. It has a porcelain fragility, as though if you look too closely at it, it might shatter. But look closely you must, mentally watching Outerbridge’s hands hovering for a moment over the keys like he’s just now working out which note comes next, and feeling that both you and he are discovering that moment together. There is a bit of risk-taking on Obsolete, but it comes in the form of moments where the listener needs to trust the artist. The very first note of the first track, “Koan,” sounds slightly off-key–and it’s a moment, after a pause, before the second note arrives to establish the relationship. From there, this barely two-minute piece sets the course for the rest of the album. But, again, not without more hmm moments. When “Doldrums” opens with a three-note phrase, there follows a full 17 seconds of letting the last note fade before Outerbridge plays another note. Not looking right at your media player? Then you’ll likely wonder where the hell those first three notes came from or where they were supposed to be. But as the piece proceeds, with Outerbridge placing short phrases and letting time flow between them, it becomes an exercise in finding the impact of negative space. That seems to be the key here, that practice of taking what could be shortened into a tighter, more common kind of melody and spacing its phrases well apart, lending each one its own distinct emotional weight and, by virtue of doing so, giving each piece a fuller weight overall because in those spaces we have more time to absorb the feeling. “Somonolent” does this wonderfully, the bass chords landing and sustaining with gentle authority, based off two short notes that speak before them. Accent notes come in like a secondary thought, and the piece moves as drowsily as the title suggests. Even at its comparatively brightest and most active spot–which, ironically, is the track “Entropy”–Obsolete retains its thoughtful soul, its intimately conversational tone.
I think this is a fantastic album in its way, but I could see some listeners needing more fullness to it, less minimalist airiness–although it’s easy to argue that this is absolutely the core of its potency. Plus, while each track has its own overall feel, because Outerbridge doesn’t alter his style much (place note, pause, contemplate, breathe, place note) it could be suggested that there is a high degree of sameness. I see that. And yet I have listened to this album over and over again, attentively and as background, and I’ve never felt like I’ve heard enough of it or had enough of the reflective space it brings me into. If I was one to give awards, Outerbridge and Obsolete would get one for packing the most beauty and feeling into the fewest notes. Please check this one out for yourself.
Available at Bandcamp.