You should be feeling pretty good by the end of “Future/Now,” the first track from George Wallace’s Light Music. Bright and energetic, it bursts out of the gates and grabs your hand to show you all the things on the composer’s musical mind. In notes on his website, Wallace calls this piece “A joyous communion” and “a wild celebration,” and as grandiose as that may come off, it certainly is both. To be honest, if this album stuck just to this kind of tone–and it has plenty of it–it would probably wear thin for me in short order. But Wallace’s stories are many, so after this shiny opener, he curves off into the more shadowy, arcana-tinted “Existentia.” Slow-moving and mysterious, it’s pushed along with the hum and growl of didgeridoo and some textbook tribal-ambient percussion. Wavering sweeps of tone add texture, and the piece rises gracefully as the tale progresses. In past outings, I have sometimes felt that Wallace’s work can get a little too wrapped up in the kind of big, sweeping melodramatic phrasing and sound-imagery that can turn the music into cloying pomp. A piece like “Existentia” has the potential to head there, but never gives in to it. Instead, it just gets more darkly intense. Great piece. (Oh my, did I just actually drum on the table to this while I was writing? Yes, I did.) There is a little touch of the too-much-trope in “Behold the Mothership,” when Wallace opts to throw in the big, whooshing sound of the engines as we head into space (hello, Michael Stearns’ Encounter). Prior to that, it’s one of those vast-distance, pad-driven spacemusic pieces. After the trope, Wallace lays down some gorgeously quiet tones (because after the hyperdrive, the float). “Imaging Cathedrals” almost lost me at the beginning because Wallace once again relies on a too-obvious tool: the ringing of church bells–or a clock tower hitting the hour. (“The Cambridge Chimes.”) Yes, I recognize that the song has “Cathedrals” in the title, but when you kick off a piece with something so blatant, I’m going to grimace. That being said, what’s happening here is that Wallace then takes said tones and melts them down into the framework of something more interesting than it seemed it was going to be. Light touches of field recordings add depth, and then Wallace laces in a catchy Latin-esque rhythm and swirls of flute. It’s a quiet groove, and I like what the track becomes, but I kind of wish he’d foregone that initial point of reference. He plays with that four-note tune later in the piece, and if it just came in there, it would work as a very cool nod to the title and theme. If you want a fine example of the range of Wallace’s musical capabilities, you have dive into “Interstellar Hoedown.” I am going to admit that I was worried that this would devolve into something a little too cheesy, based on the name, but…wow. There’s the word. Just…wow. It sounds like Shadowfax crossed with Jean-Luc Ponty and maybe a little Return to Forever. Just the flute alone, spiraling along in jazzy riffs and runs, will brighten your soul. Violin dances wildly across the scene, and the round, chunky sound of fretless bass anchors it all. Slap some joyful hand percussion in there, and it’s a party, pure and simple and thematically perfect.
I’m aware of how many times in this review I’ve noted that a piece from Light Music made me concerned that if might turn into something either too obvious or too overblown, only to have Wallace reel it back in and fully hold my attention. It’s a matter of personal taste versus the composer’s expression. There’s some fantastic music here, and once I get past my wincing points, I am fully into Light Music. It has stories to tell, and they’re diverse enough to keep you listening for the next tale. A solid, well-composed suite of works from George Wallace–possibly the best I’ve heard from him to date.
Available from CD Baby.