There have always been hints of the symphonic in Chad Kettering’s work, but in the past it has typically slipped quietly into the background, maybe swelling a bit here and there in emphasis but mostly performing a supporting role. On his new release, Pathways, the symphonic pulls a chair right down front, takes the lead quite commandingly, and proceeds to launch its listeners on a big, cinematic, dramatic and beautiful journey. I would have sworn that this was a Spotted Peccary release; it has the same immense tone and phrasing so similar to what I’m used to hearing from that label, it was a surprise that this is apparently self-produced. I have enjoyed Kettering’s two previous releases, but on Pathways he makes a quantum leap in both style and substance. It is huge both in tone and in the perception of who Chad Kettering is as an artist. This is further cemented in the fact that Kettering doesn’t stick to one sound on Pathways. Yes, there are songs that should be the soundtrack to some fabulous nature documentary with long, swooping shots racing over a frozen tundra, but there are also funky uptempo pieces and plenty of world music influences at play as well. We are brought into Pathways on the twinkling keyboard and emphatic strings of “Openings” before we’re hit with a burst of drama, vocal pads, and a tempo switch. Here’s the first hint that Kettering has gone large. I distinctly recall having a “wow” moment at hearing this, and even more so when he throws in a drop then charges back up the other side of the break with a glitch-style rush under romantic strings. “Finding My Way” suddenly tosses us into a gorgeous sequencer riff, and the changeover is very effective. Now we understand that this ride is covering a lot of ground. High energy and great textures make this a standout track. Cellist Kari Kettering of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra lends soul-shaking, rich low-end sounds to “The Fire Within.” Again on this track Mr. Kettering makes great use of a drop. He builds the sound up to a potent thickness, rising out of a slow cello dirge and pads, then snaps it off and gives Mrs. Kettering the floor to set the tone and tempo for the latter half of the track. Like me, you’ll probably feel yourself waiting for this thing to burst upward as the cello phrase repeats over and over and small elements find their way in. It’s a nice, slow burn augmented with operatic vocals from Francesca Genco. Get up close with this one. The cello takes center again on the world-music-style “Close To You.” Thundering drums, wordless chanting vocals, and the hurried bass thrum of the cello form a bottom line for the melody. It’s another great pairing of energy and softness. Ms. Genco’s voice is absolutely stirring on the ambient depths of “The Infinity Mirror.” Paired off at the outset with heavy low-end pads and a windswept electronic atmosphere, she cries out a beautiful prayer. It comes back in an ethereal echo as Kettering fills the space with ringing chimes. This is Pathways‘ quietest track, comparatively speaking, yet it’s still very dynamic in its movement. Again, get in close for this one. The closing track, “Standing Upon the Edge,” is one that must have special meaning for Kettering—he notes that it his return to the trumpet after a 20-year hiatus, having started his musical career as a classical trumpeter. Pull in your Mark Isham comparisons for this one as Kettering lays down phrases over droning pads and plays with loops and echoes. The sound is very deep and swirling and hypnotic, leading us at last to a very hushed ending.
Hands down and without question in my mind, Pathways is one of the year’s best New Age/contemporary instrumental albums. Quite frankly, this should be up for every conceivable award and Best Of list out there. Chad Kettering has taken a bit of a risk in suddenly going this big, this symphonic, this grand, and he utterly freaking nails it. Put this release on at higher volume to take in its grandiose-by-plan potency, but also give it some close listens because Kettering has gone into very fine detail at the tiniest levels. This is powerful, emotional, attention-grabbing music and it is a completely rewarding experience for the listener. A stunning release, a must-hear. Bravo, Mr. Kettering.
Available from Chad Kettering’s web site.