Christopher Willits – Sunset

San Francisco ambient musician Christopher Willits’s precise instructions for listening to Sunset, his latest collection of five ephemeral pieces for his long term Ghostly label home, asks you to “Begin the music fifteen minutes before the sun sets.” The collection is designed to reflect the changing light and warmth of the end of the day, in so doing allowing a deep connection to form between the listener and her or his surroundings, concurrently creating a Zen-like spiritual appreciation of the moment.

I didn’t listen to this at sunset, nor was I particularly aware of my surroundings at the time: I first played this after a difficult June evening, in the early morning, on a train; the sun was hidden behind a screen of impenetrable rain clouds and its warmth was utterly absent. It was arguably the opposite of what Willits intended for his music, but it presented a sort of stillness and reassuring calm that felt necessary at that point.

That’s not to suggest that these pieces are devoid of colour and emotion. Amid long electronic tones, overlapping drones, and some heavily-processed and virtually unrecognisable guitars, moments of tension arise before quietly resolving themselves and moving on; subtle harmonic ebbs and flows give rise to unintentional melodies, while the woodland sounds of ‘Transpire’ transport you from the synthetic world to the real one. It is a collection of resolute, irrepressible beauty, and one that might just leave you feeling a little altered (for the better) after.

Sunset by Christopher Willits is released by Ghostly International on June 14 2019. The timing of this post’s publication coincided with the estimated time of sunset in the UK town where I live.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Eluvium – Pianoworks

For the past sixteen years, Portland, OR’s Matthew Cooper has been issuing ambient albums full of dense layers and affecting emotional resonances. Pianoworks, as its name suggests, is an album made entirely with piano, a sequel to 2004’s An Accidental Memory In The Case Of Death. The inspiration this time around was the notion of childhood innocence and the struggle to retain that as the gravity of adulthood reveals itself.

That heavy sentiment gives pieces like ‘Quiet Children’ a hopefulness, its central melody evoking the notion of looking back on early memories through the sepia-tinged lens of time. In contrast, ‘Carrier 32’ has a subtle stridency, portraying the determination of a child to talk, walk or grab at objects that you’d rather they didn’t touch. There’s also a prevailing sadness that those days seem like a lifetime ago, with that melancholic dimension existing most notably in the concluding, unresolved melodies of ‘Empathy For A Silhouette’.

By stripping back the layers Cooper normally deploys, he has created a precise, beatific album that will leave an indelible mark on anyone – even the most curmudgeonly of souls – who are prone to bouts of wistful nostalgia for those halcyon, simple, lost days of youth.

Pianoworks by Eluvium is released on May 31 2019 by Temporary Residence.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Andrew Poppy – Hoarse Songs

Hoarse Songs is composer Andrew Poppy’s first release since 2012’s Shiny Floor Shiny Ceiling and finds him presiding over an eclectic sequence of ten pieces, each one as vastly different in its presentation as the next.

On the captivating opening piece, ‘Song Tide (Interruptible ted)’, you find Poppy blending together the strictures of modern classical musical with a nod to Erik Satie and a perhaps unexpected sojourn to the most introspective moments of ‘Rhapsody In Blue’. Just as you think you’ve worked out the direction of the album, the next piece is almost entirely electronic, delivered in a jerky, non-linear fashion that sounds like the confluence of a series of differently-timed layers of loops – brass sounds, off-kilter percussion, electro pulses, bubbling electronics, poetic vocals – occasionally intersecting like an AI-derived score.

And so it progresses, each successive piece throwing you ever so slightly off-balance. ‘Wave Machine (Endless Parting)’ deploys exciting synth patterns with white noise percussion and hypnotic harp flourishes beneath Poppy’s canticle-esque vocal; ‘Downside Up’ plays with wonky fusion jazz; ‘What Alice Said’ and ‘What Is This Place’ are evocative, beatific moments of operatic theatricality; ‘Riderless’ takes cyclical horns from Mike Soper, Laura Jurd and Nathaniel Cross and attaches them to metallic music-box electronics; the delicate ‘Cyber Spark’ is enveloped in a sparse, fragile, icy brilliance.

The album’s surrealist twelve-minute centrepiece, ‘X Y Song’, is like a modernistic tone poem with relationship fluidity as its ever-mutable central reference point, while ‘Hoarse’, the album’s final statement, is a genteel, gently uplifting piano composition that would bring this collection to a serene full stop were it not for the interjection of its composer’s strangely unsettling intonation of the title.

Perceived wisdom says that composers and musicians must shy away from these dexterous displays of magpie-like eclecticism, that they just stay shackled to something forever and never liberate themselves from it, however uncomfortable and restrictive that might prove to be. Andrew Poppy has ever been the contrarian composer, and Hoarse Songs is yet another timely and deftly-delivered two fingers to the new classical tradition.

Hoarse Songs by Andrew Poppy is now available for pre-order from andrewpoppy.co.uk

With thanks to Philip.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Justin Wright – Music For Staying Warm

The first thing that popped into my head during Justin Wright’s Music for Staying Warm was an interview with, believe it or not, Vangelis. In Sounds magazine in 1976, James Wynn gaped at the tone palette Vangelis conjured – not from a limitless synthesizer – but from the comparatively monochromatic Fender Rhodes piano, which produced “lyrical vibes, vibrant bass, an amazingly accurate music-box sound and all sorts of other things.” Listening to Wright’s work for (supposedly) string quintet, I scrambled to see who overdubbed oboe, bass clarinet, and… voices? Was there a harmoniser pedal?

Wright tastefully extracts a wide range of colors from his cello and the rest of the ensemble. Natural harmonics, bridge mutes, bow positioning, and other traditional trickery cause the listener to wonder which stringed (or non-stringed) instruments are in the band.

A major contributor to the colors of ‘Warmth’ is the recording studio. In ‘Modular Winter’ the low-register viola melody would be lost were it not for microphone placement. The solo cello in ‘Improvisation’ is offset by a much more reverberant violin. Panning and echo effects cradle ‘In Sunlight’ in wispy harmonics that waft around the ensemble like dandelion seeds.

The interplay between harmonic effects and melody also gives ‘In Sunlight’ the only real dissonance on the album. Everything else basks in diatonic comfort and first-inversion optimism. Any ‘motion’, i.e. phrase repetition, exists to reinforce the grounded, frozen-in-time atmosphere.

Speaking of time-freezing, five words that repel my synthesizer colleagues are “Check out my drone piece.” Fortunately, the tracks here labelled ‘Drone’ are not endless tones that force the listener to wager when a musician will fall asleep and drop their instrument. They contain phrases. They move. ‘Drone III – Saudade’ tells an almost Schubertian tonal story. It is warm.

The final movement’s ‘Taps’-like melody gently lays us in a bed of reassuring Coplandic harmonies and enough plagal cadences to keep one eye on the heavens. The listener is indeed ‘Staying Warm’ “…and all sorts of other things.”

Music For Staying Warm by Justin Wright is released by First Terrace Records on April 5 2019.

Words: Reed Hays

(c) 2019 Reed Hays for Further.

Ralph Heidel // Homo Ludens – Moments Of Resonance

Ralph Heidel belongs to a new generation of musicians for whom the supposedly hard borders between genres mean very little. In the case of his debut album, we find him deploying his classical studies from Munich’s celebrated Academy of Music alongside the saxophone he began playing before he was a teenager, melded in with occasional bursts of the sort of glitchy electronics and bold synth strokes that modern classical musical seems to embrace most easily.

Ambitious, evolving tracks like ‘Kadiköy Shimmer’ or the serene ‘Während die Feigen’ or the thrilling, feisty punk-funk-with-strings of ‘Blurred Idiosyncrasy’ are peripatetic, expansive affairs, covering so much ground that it’s often hard to keep up. From austere orchestrations to bleating sax, questing piano runs and droning, distorted electronics, when viewed as a whole, Moments Of Resonance can be something of a dizzyingly complex affair, sometimes taking a reflective stance on pieces like ‘Our Kingdom’ and at others bordering on a noisy intensity that nods to the rapture of fire music.

It is a testament to Heidel’s gutsy vision that these eight pieces can hold together so well in spite of their purportedly incompatible genetic codes, placing him neatly into today’s vibrant and unapologetic fusion scene.

Moments Of Resonance by Ralph Heidel / Homo Ludens is released by Kryptox Records on April 5 2019.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.