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.


Closer – In Search Of Life (2014)


The new self-released album from Liam Daly’s Closer project with In Search Of Life. 

It’s been some time since I heard an album take to that beautiful crossover realm of Ambient and Post-Rock; Jasper Tx’s final album An Index Of Failure was probably the last one to really capture me and to say that this album is perhaps up there with it in quality is an enormous compliment. The opener “Interception” actually has something more akin to a Hammock sound all things considered (and the album as a whole), and moves forward at a crushingly slow place across its luxurious 9 minute span. Slow, reverbed piano forges the centerpiece of the track, rolling round and around as delicate drones and flutters of light guitar ripple and crest in its wake. It has a lightweight and easygoing, pleasant air to it that’s just a pleasure to listen to, counterbalanced and juxtaposed against the dark opening of “We Are Silently Roaring Through Space”. The comparatively noisy ambience of the opener has been torn away and we’re left with a dark void, a hole in the heart of the track as the pianos toll distantly and lifelessly, muffled in the expansive vacuum of space. The distant lights of stars and galaxies become smeared as liquid currents of rushing guitar drones and white noise washes fill the hole that seem to go on forever, but it isn’t all empty and hopeless for the second half becomes more empowered in its stuttering lo-fi riffs. Eventually its cavernous sound dies away mournfully and we’re left with a brief moment at its end to sit in silence and contemplate the Universe.

“Someone’s Soul Is Drifting” wafts in on heartwrenching currents of piercing drone, slipstreaming effortlessly into a space filled with carefully placed piano strokes and the light notes of drifting, distant, supplementary violin and faint guitar. It’s absolutely more harmonious and beautiful that its predecessor but in a mournful way, one that hints at loss and the hope in some kind of life after death, an ode to something lost. The piano is always an extremely expressive instrument and I often think of it having quite a resigned and wistful sound, and the sudden clarity and lack of obfuscation draws attention to that aspect of its sound even more so, especially in the sparse closing seconds. Followup “The Sense Of Being Stared At” I suppose continues to reinforce this idea of hope in an afterlife as the sheltered and distant piano returns with the expansive serenading guitar. It’s an extremely melancholic track despite this, wallowing in loss and the inability to interact with those passed once more, of being continuously reminded of their absence.

“Who’s Riding The Airwaves Tonight” arrives on enigmatic reversed tones, the guitar and piano being rolled back into their respective instruments and repeated one after the other, cycling with the same casual regularity of the radio waves of its namesake. There honestly is extremely little I can say about this track; it proceeds at an easygoing and unconcerned pace, slowly allowing fresh snippets of texture into the soundscape and breaking out of its lowkey beginnings to something entirely more ambitious; the piano riffs delicate and repetitive, the lush guitar introduced to fluff out the empty backfield and ensure our continued hypnotic state. It peters out into an enigmatic darkness as we bookend the album with closer “Return Signal”, opening to rushes of white noise and encrypted static. It’s the most unusual track of the album in that regard, and it’s kind of disappointing Liam left it so late to swing a slight curveball into the mix as it buzzes energetically. The slow guitar picks and rich, distal piano project a certain hopefulness across the air, the guitar especially, louder and clearer than ever before. “We hear you, everything’s fine” you can hear it say as it all falls away to that basal noise, the chaotic language of the Universe.

Listening to In Search For Life can be quite a struggle at times; there’s a strongly emotional component of this album that is extremely resonant with me. Its title raises the question; is this the search for extraterrestrial life, of scientific endeavour, or is it the search for life here on Earth, the effort to regain some sense of humanity back into oneself after loss and death. Its broad vistas of sound leave lots of space for interpretation as well as personal reflection, even if they can be a bit cumbersome and poorly progressive at times. It’s certainly not an instrumental powerhouse, nor an overly unique project, but it does tug on the old heartstrings with excellent frequency.


Bruno Bavota – The Secret Of The Sea (2014)


I’ve been contacted by Bruno before, sometime last year, via an agent and in a comment on my About page. Sadly I tend not to take those impersonal copy-pasted messages particularly seriously and I didn’t follow through. However it seems that Bruno has a new album out in a few months time and was still interested in what I potentially had to say because I received an interesting email from him and here we are. And in this new album we’re presented with the concept of the eternal fascination that Bruno and so many others share with the big, mysterious oceans of the world.

This man-sea love story begins in opener “Me And You”, introduced and largely led by calming, lightly reverbed acoustic guitar riffs followed by lightweight tinkling of the ivories ; one, the slow, pulsating rhythms of the waves, the other their sparkling, reflective surface. Electric guitar drone croons distantly later in the piece, creating a thin and delicate ambience and underlining the intimacy of this track. It, and a number of other pieces on this release, remind me rather strongly of other Modern Classical musicians Balmorhea, especially their later work. “Les Nuit Blanches” brings the focus back to the piano, of which Bruno is perhaps best known for, with an uncomplicated and rather wistful performance. It starts at a crawl but the slight increase in pace and attack only lends further credence to the rather melancholic and minor key, and when it cant be evaded the closing moments collapse with a few slow, sad keystrokes.

That beautiful Balmorhea sound reappears in “The Man Who Chased The Sea”, following through with further guitars with their steel strings whining and grating along chord changes. They sink slowly to an accompanying repetitive background noise while more empowered and strong piano takes the foreground. It’s feels something like a rat race, with the initial acoustic guitar being this seed or idea looping and itching restlessly in the back of the mind, whilst the piano is the action and physical desire to return to the sea front and gaze upon its endless surface once more. “Hidden Lights Through Smoky Clouds” folds the fevered pace with creeping, distally thick violin drones flowing gently deep in the heart of the piece, matched with more enthusiastic piano above in this beautiful introspective.

“If Only My Heart Were Wide Like The Sea” brings some more challenging concepts to the fore, with heartwrenchingly beautiful minimal guitar playing intimately and mournfully in the introduction, so close you can almost see and touch it. The piano that subsequently underpins this rather emotionally damaged piece is further away and is only brief, a small and restless interlude musing uncomfortably on one’s self. All of the familiar instrumentation comes through in the rather chipper “Constellations”, the sea’s similarly endless counterpart in the sky. It shimmies and bounces jovially, almost jerkily, rather than the more smooth and fluid motions of the sea-dominated tracks, mirroring the placid, shimmering lights in the continually turning sky, bursting in and out through tufts of cloud and the lights of the street. The admiration of the night sky similarly comes through in the appropriately titled “Northern Lights” as flutters of high-strung guitar and piercing but delicate intrusions of faint guitar drone supplement the flowing piano as it shifts and pulses and changes colour.

For an album focused on the sea, there has been a distinct lack of any seaside sounds (somewhat thankfully), until “The Boy And The Whale” opens to the slow and gentle lapping of distant and what sounds like quite lo-fi waves. Once more the piano takes a slow, considered and uphill style, starting rather downtrodden but picking up the pieces and the pace of this melancholic sound as it progresses, aching to be back at the sea front as it turns over the sounds of those enticing waves again and again. And before we know what’s happened, the title track is upon us with mean and imposing piano rattling and pounding at the gates of our mind. It slipstreams into something similarly empowered in the more melodic sequences to follow, peaking and troughing alternately in anxious & fearful and regretful & resigned atmospheres respectively. We can pour our hearts into the sea all we like but there is nothing truly cathartic about it, it gives us nothing back.

Lastly, closer “Chasing Stars” is upon us, flicking rapidly from dark and imposing to rapid and rather upbeat in the disconcerting blink of an eye; suddenly things go from sounding and seeming crushing and hopeless to hopeful and inspired in a second as the slow, heavy blows turn into a tumble of relentless keystrokes, only to disappear into the darkness in the final moments as the piece falls apart and the melodies slow to nothingness and the curtains are drawn on the album at last.

While I do really enjoy this album, I think I admire it more for its technical skill than its emotional output; clearly this is a work that Bruno has put a lot of time and personal thought and emotion into but for me that just isn’t expressed as well as I thought it might have been. There are too many twists, too many pace changes and inconsistencies between pieces; I wish there could have been fewer, longer tracks. I love the interplay between the instrumentation and I wont ever not love solo piano, but I cant help but somewhat disconnected to the concept of the release, especially in the second half. Beautiful but somewhat alienating to me.