Keaton Henson – Romantic Works (2014)

Romantic Works

Keaton Henson is perhaps best known for his heart-breaking Indie Folk past records, works that used his vocal talent to put across ideas and emotions and tell tales of love lost. So it’s interesting then that in the surprise arrival of self-released Romantic Works, Henson has decided to forgo his usual style and craft an album capable of standing up on its own emotionally whilst leaving the lyrical content at the wayside. Refreshing as it is, and despite its relatively conventional and not-wholly-unique performance, it’s still perhaps one of the most touching records of the year, and at only 30 minutes long, manages to say a great deal in a relatively short space of time.

Forged largely from Henson’s piano and Ren Ford’s cello, it breaks open to the janglings and tunings of preparatory opener “Preface”, a warm-up session that buckles down its drone lines and chaotic instrumentation rapidly to bring the rest of the album with its closing. But it’s hard to get a lock on proceedings following its simplicity, the album itself moving from one romantic fugue or encounter to the next; “Elevator Song” is a neatly gradual introduction to the reality of the record’s sonic style, marrying a duotone piano riff to the rising stringed drones of the cello as they lift each other out of the mix in a growing wave, slow and measured but breaking free of the confines of its early simplicity. It’s sparseness and desire for expansion come around again in the locked in “Petrichor” a little later on; unquestionably my favourite track of the album it sits wistfully in its chair by the window, watching and listening to the gentle rainfall outside and spinning out delicate pulses of aged and tired, flat piano. It’s got a quiet and subdued wistfulness, mesmerised by the confining inclement weather outside, painfully aware of its loneliness.

This mildly melancholic, solitary vibe is continued like a vein through a few other pieces as well; aptly titled penultimate piece “Nearly Curtains” is a reflective and introspective little number that’s driven by the haunting and faded cries and chatter of a distant child’s voice, a desire to return to those naive, innocent and simple times expressed through sad stringed drones and thick layers of ancient, suppressive reverb. “Josella” too has a streak of melancholia running through its initial sequences, with especially pained cello bringing in a rather sharp air amidst thick and wailing waves of distal reverb, mournful and crushed. It pulls through slightly in its latter half, however, as it pushes it all away with a mild textural and temporal crescendo that serves to just take the edge of things a little bit, the piano softening things just slightly.

The remaining works could be argued to be vaguely optimistic, or at the very least hopeful. The gorgeous “Field” is perhaps the most expansive piece as it marries gorgeously delicate currents of birdsong against quiet and contemplative cello, creating a bigger but not bolder atmosphere ahead of itself as it drinks in the view and rests in peaceful and quiet reflection rather contentedly. Okay, it still retains some level of loneliness but there’s a certain distracting force at work that takes our mind off things for a brief while. The same is true of predecessor “Healah Dancing” as it carves a deliciously solitary but rather cathartic slow-dance piece out of measured cello and melancholic piano lines, the soundstage padded by distant clatterings and tinklings as we populate the cathartic daydream with more fantasy creations, crowned by a wave of splendid but rather morose crescendo as reality rushes back.

Perhaps most importantly is the piano dominated beauty “Earnestly Yours”, a precise and deliberately crafted gem that carves out the measured pen strokes and the words behind the lines through the expressive tinkling alone. Like many of the tracks, it has the same idiosyncratic burst of energy towards its closing moments, gaining a brief confidence and momentum in an emotional burst that’s just heart-breaking to listen to, a wave of suppressed love and tenderness that we’re being forced to leave behind for lack of reciprocation. And it’s tempting to think that this record focuses on a single individual, an ex-partner that is pushing Henson through the degrees of separation, but the reality is this is a smeared and averaged work that highlights the sad truth of it; loss and heart-break is wrenching no matter who or what the circumstances, it just becomes a case of same shit, different story, but there’s still happiness to be found within one’s self that we must hold on to no matter what.

North Atlantic Drift & Northumbria – Split (Polar Seas Recordings, 2014)

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Splits are a funny business; sometimes the right two artists align and create really beautiful, haunting records where they’re both in tune (like last year’s Aaron Martin/Christoph Berg split for example), and sometimes it feels a little out of place and disjointed, oftentimes biased. The new North Atlantic Drift/Northumbria split, in my mind, is something of the latter; that’s not to say that it’s a weak record necessarily, but I have some concerns about the flow and the juxtaposition of tracks with this release.

North Atlantic Drift take the first half of the album and, sadly, I’m moderately unimpressed by their creations. Their three opening movements focus down on particular stars and constellations in “Ursa Minor”, “Polaris” and “Ursa Major”, but barely invoke the mystery or the lonely isolation you’d expect. The opener, “Ursa Minor”, sort of befits its nickname of the Little Dipper; a short and relatively sweet introductory burst of unassuming, downtempo synth drones and flat percussive slaps, slipping quickly into the centerpiece of its cluster with followup “Polaris”. “Polaris” has a nice Slowcore groove to the minimalistic acoustic guitar riff that slowly and steadfastly circles the heart of the track, living up to its stable and predictable namesake in its sparsely evolving constructions. “Ursa Major” has a bit more meat on its bones but remains oddly delicate, summoning up a rather more humble but still majestic and finally more celestial atmosphere through the shimmering reverb the fragile glockenspiel creates, hinting at the black void it’s suspended in.

The final bastion of North Atlantic Drift’s sound lies just beyond the halfway mark in their last inclusion “Perpetual Daylight”, which is something of an awkward segue piece into Northumbria’s part but rather beautiful as an entity on its own. It’s the most Ambient work of the album so far, losing much of the random electronica and acoustic instrumentation of its (weaker) siblings to usher in graceful, gliding, warm synth lines as an ode to the most important star within our lives. It’s radiance is sullied immediately by the dark and heady sub-bass drones of “Cold Wind Rising”, however, a track fashioned from much the same cloth as many of Thomas Koner’s ominous and icy Drone works. It’s a fantastic piece though, hinting at some ruined underlying melody hidden beneath its distant and frozen drones and low-fidelity distortion. Lastly, “Vanishing Point” appropriately carries us over the horizon as the closing track, a similarly gorgeous but rather different creation that holds on to some of those deep drones of “Cold Wind” but marries them with the guitar lines we saw on “Polaris”, slowly and imperceptibly dissolving them into circular waves of luscious shoegazing fuzz before gracefully disappearing over the edge.

Whilst I recognise the similarities that the cold isolation of glaciers share with the lonely stars, I just can’t help but feel that NAD don’t really evoke that sensibility at all, and it loses a sense of continuity or logical flow within the album as a result. “Perpetual Daylight” tries to blur the distinction between the two artists’ differences but only, in my mind, forces more attention to the disparity; “Vanishing Point” may have been a more logical choice in its place with its crushed guitar riff slowly decaying and then moving into the bleak “Cold Wind Rising”, but that’s just me. Perhaps it’s just a case of me not being particularly enthusiastic and deliberately nitpicky but I’ve become increasingly more underwhelmed with North Atlantic Drift’s side of this record as time has gone on; that being said, Northumbria have made some gorgeous Drone works in the latter half and should be commended.

You can take a listen for yourselves over at the Polar Seas Bandcamp page here.

nnord – Orbital (Winter Alternative, 2014)

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First appearances can often be deceiving in music; one of the things I try to do to smooth things out is try to listen to an album as many times as I can before reviewing it so that I have a slightly more educated position on it, and sometimes in the process things that I liked the first time around slowly become less and less appealing with each spin. Sadly, after 9 full listens, this appears to be the case with nnord’s debut LP Orbital, invoking the same banality of the phenomena of its namesake in its Ambient Techno constructions.

That’s not to say that the music is necessarily bad, however, simply that it’s really rather boring. Comprised of 5 tracks, of which only one falls below the 7 minute mark, nnord attempt to recreate the journey that a body makes through space, its starlit mass spinning endlessly and repetitively through the black void of the cold, unforgiving vacuum. It’s a nice idea; not wholly original but it can be fantastic if well done. Opener “Arrival On The Great Plains” introduces us well to the sound we must become intimately familiar with over the album’s course; luminous synth drones arrive in heady pulses, suspended on motes of more delicate and minimal backing drones before exploding to Vangelis inspired synth blats and triumphant elongate thrums, chased away by at the end by soft and creepy wind. It’s a strong opener to be sure, but we’re forced to strap into another 30 minutes of painfully similar and repetitious melodies.

The opener pairs strongly with the last few tracks of the record, “Asteroid Tomb” and closer “The Last Bison”, both of which strike up brooding and minimalistic atmospheres through the use, or overuse, of thin drone currents and bleak electronic processings. “Asteroid Tomb” engages some oscillatory drone surges alongside some pretty cathartic currents of tattered and lo-fi noise, evoking something of the expansive and populated asteroid belt that rings our Sun, neighbours trapped forever in a ring, each one many miles and more apart. That melancholy bleeds through into finalé “The Last Bison”, bringing even more crushing melancholy into proceedings but following the same cookie-cutter flow of all the previous pieces; it opens to unassuming, barely shifting drones which continue bleakly for an excessive period of time before transitioning into driven synth riffs and driving basslines imbibing some weird sense of migratory urgency. Ultimately it disappears in the same way as every other piece though; with no more energy it lazily cuts its textural complexity to near-zero before fading to black.

The other tracks have a rather more empowered and ambitious attitude, but still maintain the idiosyncrasies of the other pieces. “Black Sky And Cosmic Dust” is a decent followup to the opener, it must be said, taking a rather Psytrance approach (ala Carbon Based Lifeforms) in its crushingly dark and deceptively quickly cruising thrum. It has a bouncy but driving dry synth line that supplements the more proactive early drones and electronic flangings, faint twinklings in the great dark. Similarly bold, almost percussive, beats rise out of “Beyond The Orbital River” as well, except they’re no longer bright and vaguely carefree and soaked in an unshakeable anxiety as the cold pseudo-winds wind through the mix. It’s fast(ish) and bolder than any other track, but its rather pointless monotony and crushingly boring repetition feels so unrewarding, especially when it does nothing more in its closing moments than simply fade away. Deeply anticlimactic.

Really that’s the crux of the problem for me with this release; it hovers in the realm of interesting, compelling music but does nothing to break itself out of the hugely disappointing repetitive structures it builds for itself; nnord lock themselves into corners it appears they can’t get out of once they initiate those circular synth lines and it’s really frustrating to listen to. That aside, there is some interesting Ambient and Drone minimalism occurring throughout; the atmospheres they summon through the eerily calm and bleak background noise are commendable, it’s just the core of their pieces are so unsatisfying and tiresome to listen to. I’ve tried to pick its strongest suites but the reality is this is only good if you really turn your brain off and not focus on how mundane it so frequently is.