Written & Unsent is an album for people who enjoy solo piano, an aching sense of longing, sudden outpourings of emotion, and simple beauty. Outside of a brief thematic sound clip of someone scribbling a note—which we must assume was something heartfelt—there is nothing here but Mathew Roth and his keys and his thoughts. And here’s something worth noting: if you can bring me to the verge of tears with your first track, you’ve got me fairly well locked in. There is something in “An Outline of Rain” that goes straight to my core. While it’s in there dredging up whatever repressed memories it can, it’s also making me think of George Winston at his most emotive, and pointing toward Roth’s classical influences. He doesn’t let up as he moves into “This Delicate Entanglement.” The piece shifts from slow, gentle lines to an almost pounding round of heavy chords, a flare that rises toward anger, but burns itself out. And in that release, things settle back into quiet melody. I’m not sure if Roth meant for me to hear echoes of the X-Files theme in a flourish in the middle of “Step,” but in this spiraling storm of arpeggios, it jumps out at me. Prior to that, it catches my ear with a bouncing rhythm and impressively technical flourishes that keep a playful air. There’s almost a ragtime vibe to the song that juxtaposes nicely with the more somber undertone that comes with it. “Steeped As If Silence Were Water” is a romantic piece, bright and optimistic. It lives largely on the higher end of the keyboard and dances its way through its brief say.
There are only six pieces on Written & Unsent and it trickles past in under half an hour. But for me it lands with an emotional weight much greater than that. Roth’s playing is beautiful, full of life and pain and heart and skill. It has taken me a while to get around to reviewing Mr. Roth, and I know that there is a newer album from him waiting in my queue. Believe me—after listening to Written & Unsent, I will be looking into more of his work as soon as I can.
Available from Bandcamp.
Over the last several years, Bruno Sanfilippo has been making a focused move toward establishing himself in contemporary or modern classical composition. With The Poet, I feel he has found his current apex, and is rapidly becoming a composer who, although perhaps noted as a “New Age” artist, is breaking well beyond the borders of that delineation. The Poet is minimalist chamber music, with Sanfilippo joined by cellist Julián Kancepolski and violinist Pere Bardagí. Each piece feels delicate and flawlessly sculpted, the kind of thing you want to gingerly hold up to the light and turn over and over to see every facet. To me, the work here is lightly glazed with just a touch of sadness that never crosses into a less desirable tone of melancholy. It’s pensive and true. The title track, the moving “Before Nightfall,” and”Silk Offering” all pull the listener into that introspective cocoon while also giving us a feel for the easy chemistry between the players, the balance of the instruments’ tones. Bardagí’s lines reach straight for the heart on “Before Nightfall,” and Kancepolski’s counterpoint helps drive it home. “Silk Offering” is a beautiful blend where Sanfilippo’s patient phrasing lays down a bed for the pleading voice of the violin and the more stringent tone of the cello to work out their conversation. The pace is slow, underscored with drama, and the piece is vivid. The more minimalist side of the work comes out later, with “Dead’s Hope” and “The Four Keys” both opening with repeating arpeggios that speak of the influence of Glass and Reich. “Dead’s Hope” is short, more like an exercise in building intensity. It reaches constantly upward, then simply stops. “The Four Keys” is a true showcase for the strings and the potency that can come from repetition. We hear the same phrases, yet they seem to rise up in meaning with each new pass. It seems like Sanfilippo wanted to roll out as many different approaches as practical on The Poet. “Iron Horse” goes strong on theme with Sanfilippo playing alone on what I assume from the sound is a prepared piano. Its notes have a metallic ring and resonance to them, and the piece jerks along like rusted machinery, its awkward pauses creating very strong mind’s-eye imagery. “The Book Without Words” seems to grow beyond the small trio feel in places, reaching for something more symphonic with tympani rolls and layers of strings. Sanfilippo’s music-box playing keeps it anchored in a glistening simplicity. And if you’d like your heart broken, the short solo piano piece “Abandoned Carousel” will do it for you in exactly two minutes. It’s the closing piece, and whether Sanfilippo meant to do this or not, it dovetails seamlessly back into the first piece. It is about as perfect a continuation of feeling as I’ve ever heard. So if it’s on purpose, bravo.
The Poet is an exquisitely beautiful set of works. While minimalist in compositional approach, the pieces here are full in ways that utterly belie that tag. The effect on the listener is maximal, certainly. These are pieces that land with emotional impact and demand focused attention. They may be delicate, but they are strong. Sanfilippo grows almost exponentially as a composer with each new release. The Poet is amazing, it is a must-hear, and it has become a personal favorite of mine. Listen to this now.
Available from Bandcamp.
Multiplying waves of “willfully minimalist” electronics create the core of #002 Animai(i) from Nnord. Pulses, drones, and steadily building walls of noise represent “the breath of the Soul mourning the condition of living creatures enslaved by Man.” Given that, it should come as no surprise that there is a funereal quality running under everything here. It surfaces most notably in the dirge that plays out under the rising hum in “Beehive, the Old Queen is Dead.” Less patient or tolerant listeners may not take well to the way that hum grows into an aggressive buzz—despite being firmly within the parameters of the theme—but listen to the way its tone takes over for the dirge it swallowed. From there, the somber and somewhat surprising sound of a morose piano melody leads into the album’s denouement, “Rien n’est plus puissant qu’une idée dont l’heure est venue” (“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” a quote from Victor Hugo.) After the piano introduction, the piece of turned over to a speech by philanthropist and and animal rights activist Phillip Wollen. Nnord runs a straight drone under it and lets Wollen’s words have the floor. The speech is powerful; how much the drone adds to it is somewhat subjective. To me it’s just there, underscoring the potent message with an extra layer of urgency. The “it’s just there” sense sort of sums up my thoughts on this album. I do like what I’m hearing in the way Nnord layers drones, weaves in textures, and keeps things simple while finding each piece’s emotional center. For example, the ominous vibe of “Bleeding Ocean,” built around a central pillar of a rough bass wave that rises and falls, is almost unnerving as it increases in its biting intensity. An appreciation of minimalism goes a long way here; much of the album could easily be construed as too static although there is always a dynamic vein running through, albeit quite slowly. #002 Animal(i) is not for everyone, but might just have the strength to convert listeners with diverse tastes.
Available from Winter Alternative.
As Phillip Wilkerson takes on the metaphor of rivers in his new release, I will strive to keep my review free of the obvious references—flowing, liquid, drifting currents, etc.—because, if you’ve listened to much of his work, these words always apply. In fact, it’s hard to say much about Waking Across the River that I haven’t said in previous reviews. I could start with “you need to get this,” because you do, and go from there. I could mention the deep, personal, emotional quality that runs through each track, but you’re going to feel that strongly from the opening moments. Although the majority of the album is dominated by long, drone-like pads in a classic rise-and-fall layout, Wilkerson opens in a very New Age kind of space with “And Then the Time Was Lifted,” firing off dramatic piano glissandi over string pads. He then lets his sounds quiet down and melt together into more straightforward ambient shapes. This is the format for two of the parts of Wilkerson’s four-section suite. “Kiss Her Once for Me” keeps its “solid” sounds in place for longer, playing out within a swirl of pads. Toward the end of the track, Wilkerson gives it a sequencer bounce for an easy analog feel. “The Last Day Here,” which comes between them, heads straight off into spacey, nebulous clouds of pad work. It’s something of a warm-up for the title track, which closes the suite. The first three are short although they feel pleasantly longer when you’re in them. The closer is a half-hour of pure drift, an absolute cloud of ambient deepness. While a slowly oscillating low end draws a long and steady line, mid-range tones curve and cross in the air. It’s all quite dream-like and enveloping, certainly a candidate to be looped on its own when it’s time to wind down and drift off. Let the comparisons to Steve Roach be drawn; this piece deserves to be held up to that standard, and does so more than favorably.
Put Waking Across the River into your quiet-time playlist, and keep it there. Once again, Wilkerson — a known quantity in this genre who, I feel, deserves even more recognition — is offering up beautifully rendered work, a cohesive journey wrapped effectively around a fairly common theme. (It would have been too easy to throw in field recordings of water, an affectation Wilkerson thankfully didn’t reach for.) And while it may seem more space-oriented than water-based, it is still a calming, meditative voyage of, yes, liquid pads and flowing dreams. Get this, and float away.
Available at Bandcamp.
Ready to get quiet? Ready to slip into a perfectly warm bath of sound and just sort of go away for an hour? Purl and Sinius (Ludvig Cimbrelius and Daljit Kundi) are here to help you do just that with their remarkable release, Oceans of Sound. The duo slip in and out of beats as they chart this course. and when a rhythm is layered in, it’s downplayed and scaled back almost to the point of subtlety. Check out the steady bass-drum heartbeat that empowers “Blue Water” and the laid-back drum break and other percussive elements under “Gate of Liberation.” Both show how Purl and Sinius infuse their ambient washes with potent downtempo vibes, and how they work to off-set the pure-drift pieces that form the other half of Oceans‘ sonic chemistry. “Gate of Liberation” further sweetens the pot with echoing, dream-like vocal samples and hints of sequencing that nudge the energy level upward just a touch. “Innercity Solitude” closes the album with strong lounge rhythms, dub vocal samples, and some techno-worthy beat drops. It’s super smooth, with I have often referred to as an undeniable groove. The more ambient tracks on this album are very immersive, consistently warm and layered. “Endless Wonder” and “Cascade” follow one another to lay down a 20-minute stretch of meditative bliss. Both have a spacemusic pedigree to them, carving out vast vistas packed with the shine of starlight and the familiar rush of stellar wind. In “Cascade” I hear echoes of Giles Reaves’ work, with the same swells of emotion and beauty, the same excellent sense of dimension. “Not of this World” is, as you might expect, equally spacey, and leads into the big string pads of “In Perfect Safety.” This track will nudge you out of your mind-salved state as it grows, pulling massive trails of pure emotion in its wake. It has a somber undertone but still retains a glimmer of hopefulness.
Since day one, Oceans of Sound has been an album I keep on repeat once I start it playing. It’s a breath-slowing, brain-salving, soul-satisfying ride that expertly pairs off its understated grooves with true ambient voyages. It’s quite content to just ease into your space and let you pay attention to whatever catches your ear. One of the best releases I’ve received this year, and very much worth a listen.
Available at Bandcamp.
Glitch gets melted down and smoothed out into a downtempo glide on SineRider’s Seconds Minutes
. The touches and textures of glitch are all here, the snaps and taps and rapid-fire trills, but they’re encased in well-chilled grooves and soundscapes that often become quite large and deliciously dense. That’s one of the many things I enjoy about Seconds Minutes
; Devin Powers carefully floats in continuous layers of sound without ever overloading his pieces. They become almost symphonic in size, with so much going on in your ears all at once, and all quite harmoniously. “Metric Time” follows this path, carrying distorted string sounds and crystalline keys toward that greater mass, ramping up the intensity and emotional content as it goes. Another soul-stirrer is the almost pastoral “I Saw the Sound.” With a post-rock ballad feel and a strong emotive thread throughout, it comes away as thoughtful and pensive—and, like everything here, the kind of piece you instantly want to listen to and feel again. The straightforward uptempo pieces on the album are also a joy to dive into. I like the crunchy bass and sparkling mid-range notes of “Finch.” Powers hits tempo shifts with ease, coming out of velocity to cruise for a minute before guiding it back up. “Winter Months” manages to have a sort of jaunty feel to it, catchy as hell, while still being pillow-soft. (And I am sure this is fully unintentional, by my ears pick up a hint of the ’80s song “Heaven” by Eurogliders in the four-note phrase that rolls through it. Just my old ears, I know…)
Seconds Minutes is one of those releases that caught my ear’s attention over and over in the months it’s been sitting in my review queue waiting its turn. I’d have it on shuffle, and so many times I’d get pulled into some sort of smooth groove or glitch-flecked ride, and the name on the display was SineRider. This is a great hour’s worth of well-made music, a real pleasure to stream into your everyday music flow. Check this one out soon.
As relaxing and smooth as a well-made cocktail, the lightweight jazz and nuanced Caribbean flavors of Chris Coco’s How to Disappear Completely go down pretty easy. For me, however, some of this cocktail is a little overly sweet. So I like to take sips over time rather than throwing back the whole thing at once. The album opens with “Portmerion Tide Flow,” which wastes no time in massaging your temples with acoustic guitar, interesting electronic treatments, and silken vocals from Samantha Whates, whose voice I very much enjoy. (With one exception, noted below.) Later in the release, Coco funks up the joint with the simple but effective “Dreaming of Love.” This thing’s got more hooks than a fishing boat. From the unchanging vocal to the reverberated horn line—again, everything here is absolutely simply constructed—to the snappy percussion, this will bring you to your happy place. If you don’t have one, it will make you one. “It An Tells Ya” is a cool serving of classic chill/lounge flavors, a mid-tempo groove with plenty of bass and tiny textural elements, all set perfectly in place. It’s one of those songs you feel like you already know and don’t mind hearing over and over. The closing track, “Leave No Trace,” is incredibly lovely. It’s a slow, near-ambient piece with keys, strings, and guitar that bring in an acoustic base and give it a resonant, honest quality. I want to listen to this as the sun’s setting out over the water. It would be the perfect soundtrack. For all the tasty stuff, there are a couple of bits I don’t care for here. The endless dum dum dum vocals on “Sea of Green” get old fairly quickly. “Thee Internet” tries to work its way into a sort of Flora Purim semi-spoken space, but just feels forced. Take those out of the equation and put the rest into your dedicated chill-time playlist, and Chris Coco’s bright tones and flavors will absolutely lighten the mood. Fans of light, smooth jazz and lounge will want to give this a listen.
Available from Bandcamp.