As I already commented in a couple of previous posts, I believe that “electroacoustic” and “modern classical” are among the genres of music that have benefited the most from the modern mechanisms of distribution of digital music, as witnessed by the universal success of “moods-based” and contextual playlist like “Peaceful Piano”, “Deep Focus” and “Relax & Unwind”. On the other hand, however, the prospect of being included in one of these playlists and thus catapulted into the spotlight of million of listeners has motivated hordes of mediocre artists to publish singles, EPs or entire albums of atmospheric and meditative music.
Fortunately, there are still many artists who are able to emerge from this mass of mediocrity through their talent and their compositional sensibility. This year, in particular, we could enjoy a really good number of excellent records and it was really challenging to isolate only ten LPs for this final chart.
It’s easy to verify that these albums belong to relatively different sub-genres of “meditative music” and therefore they represent distinct approaches to modern classical and electroacoustic. Naturally everyone can be more or less connected to a specific style of music and, therefore, the specific position of each artist in the chart could be the subject of endless discussions. What is objective, however, is that each one of these musicians has managed to compose something special, unique, and of absolute value. In this sense, I’m convinced that this selection of records is an excellent representation of the best we heard in 2018.
Enjoy the reading and, of course, listen to the beautiful pieces that were composed and executed by these great artists. For what concern the music, I’m pleased to inform that there is also a special playlist on Spotify which collects the best tracks from each one of the selected LPs.
#10) Theo Alexander, “Broken Access”
Theo Alexander is a relatively young English composer of contemporary classical music and Broken Access is his newest full-lenght record, released in April 2018. The four tracks of the LP offer to the listener the possibility to travel across haunting and claustrophobic imaginary landscapes which develop around layers of drones and tape-loops of piano recordings.
The techniques used by Theo Alexander to produce his delicate and rarefied atmospheres are not particularly innovative and from a purely formal point of view this style of music is nowadays practiced by many musicians (too many, perhaps). What distinguishes the English artist is his extraordinary musical sensibility and an innate talent of knowing how to remove from each song all the superfluous elements, leaving just what is necessary to convey the strongest and deepest emotions. Yes, because the five songs of Broken Access are definitely emotional. This is not a kind of music that may leave you cold or neutral. Whether you are or not a lover of meditative and modern classical music, the songs of Broken Access will reach your soul and provoke conflicting feelings: peace, anxiety, abandonment. In some moments the contrast between the prolonged sounds of the synthesizers and the perturbations introduced by the other instruments reach levels of true excitement.
And this is also record that can be put on repeat mode for hours and hours, while we are at home relaxing on the couch, or working on the PC; you won’t ever get tired of the fantastic soundscapes and the delicate pieces of melody coming out from the speakers.
#9) Kaada, “Closing Statements”
In a musical landscape like the current one, where all the attention seems to be aimed at writing successful singles, easy to assimilate and suitable to appear in a thousand of different playlists, the decision to realize a concept album already seems a bold decision. In this sense, to plan about writing an entire album dedicated to the theme of death clearly appears as a commercial suicide. Given these premises, the result obtained by Kaada with his latest work Closing Statements is definitely surprising and, as a matter of fact, the album composed by the Norwegian artist stands out as one of the most successful and appreciable records of the year. On the other hand, we’re talking of a talented musician who has always managed to combine a strong spirit of experimentation with a musical sensibility that’s out of the ordinary, and the result is that most of his albums are equally intriguing to hear and, at the same time, relatively accessible.
Closing Statements is not just an album about death. The main theme of the work is more specifically the transition between life and that unkown destination that is waiting us at the end of our journey, made through the recollection of the last sentences of the dying (the “Closing Statements”).
Surely it’s a strong and fascinating subject, but which has been addressed by Kaada with delicacy and balance. The result is in fact a collection of pieces which result profound, fascinating, but never oppressive and depressing. The album is also graced by a variety of styles and arrangements that make the work absolutely enjoyable to listen both at the level of the individual songs, but also as a single story organized in several chapters.
Musically speaking, most of the songs gravitate around a style of electroacoustic music that combines classical instruments like piano and violins with electronic, cinematic and environmental inserts. Nothing particularly original in itself and the experimental compoente, this time, seems to have focused to reach the goal of making almost imperceptible the difference between acoustic elements and synthetic parts, as if Kaada wanted to replicate, in music, that blurred and mysterious transition that passes between the last moments of life and what comes next.
#8) Dead Can Dance, “Dionysus”
I remember when I was a teenager and listening to Dead Can Dance was extremely cool and trendy. At that time the access to music was definitely more complicated with respect to modern standards and therefore, for an high school student, the act itself of buying a record of world music had the effect of giving you the fame of an expert of cultured music, at least in the eyes of those friends who used to listen Madonna and Guns and Roses. It is a fact, however, that at the end of the last century the Australian duo had achieved an impressive reputation among an heterogeneous family of music lovers, touching in some cases the status of cult band. And this happened thanks to the absolutely unique ability of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry in transposing ancient music and ethnic elements in an extremely accessible format, without losing quality and depth. Over the years their influence has maybe shrinked a little, but their albums have always preserved the charm and the value of products of great class.
This year Dead Can Dance have released a new studio album, called Dionysus, and this should be considered in itself a special event: not only the album is the ninth of a career that is close to reach forty years of activity (with some interruptions), but it also arrives six years after the previous work, 2012’s Anastasis. Beyond the numerical aspects, Dionysus provides the fans of the band and the lovers of world music with another exciting collection of tribal fusion and neoclassical songs, all of the highest quality and with a few moments of absolute beauty.
Beyond the characteristics of the individual songs, however, Dionysus was conceived in such a way as to be heard in one single run, from the beginning to the end, without the possibility for the listener of deviating from the sequence of songs that was established by the authors. In this respect, it’s sufficient to say that the digital edition of the album has only two tracks (Act I and Act II), each one collecting different chapters of the exciting story composed by the Australian musicians.
From a purely musical point of view, Dionysus doesn’t shine for particular originality in the context of the band’s discography. On the contrary, at a first listen it may seem even a bit flat and less exciting with respect to their standard levels. The beauty of the album, however, emerges after a few repeated listens, once you become familiar with the delicate mixture of Celtic, New Age and Middle Eastern music that is provided in the LP. In part it’s true that the melodies in Dionysus are less immediate and catchy than some of the most famous songs from the band. But the fact is that in their new record Dead Can Dance wanted to represent the multicolored world of the God of Ecstasy, and rather than insisting on obsessive and dramatic rhythms, they composed a special music that captures you slowly, progressively, and which will transport you into a magical and luminous world, obscured only a few times by some dark shadow.
#7) Ólafur Arnalds, “Re: member”
Probably because of my past as an amateur pianist and my boundless passion for the music of all kinds and genres, I developed an emotional connection with the music of Ólafur Arnalds as soon as I started listening to his works. I’ve been always impressed by the ability of the Icelandic composer in creating delicate, melodic and passionate songs, inspired by the melodies of the classical repertoire, which were transported, with inspiration and talent, in a new modern and “electronic” context. A moderate criticism that could perhaps be expressed about Arnalds’ music was about his recourse, in some cases, to musical expressions and atmospheres that could appear a bit too “sugary” and, to a certain extent, didactic. At least this was what I heard from some of the friends or acquaintances with whom I was trying to share my passion for this artist. Objectively, however, everyone recognizes that Arnalds has been one of the forerunner of that impressive mass of authors and composers who nowadays populate many playlists of Spotify with their melodic, minimal, but in many cases extremely uninspired and mannerist pieces.
Ólafur Arnalds’ new record, named Re: member, is the fourth LP of a discography that is very rich of singles, EP, collaborations, soundtracks and even a mixtape. What could we expect from an artist who generated so many disciples and followers if not a completely revolutionary and somewhat controversial album?
Forget the lyrical and intimate melodies of For Now I Am Winter, the beautiful mixes of strings and piano of …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, and the neo-classical inspired ambient of Eulogy for Evolution. Instead, prepare yourself for a journey into a severe minimalism that only sporadically leaves he floor to sketches of melodies. Delicate layers of sounds and simple loops create here beautiful atmospheres, and we find ourselves suspended in a cloud of lightness, which is the ideal environment to travel back into our memories, which was peraphs one of the goals of the author if we interpret the title of the album.
The casual listeners will struggle to recognize the artist in many of the songs that are featured in this collection. His touch, however, is always present and recognizable for those who have enjoyed all of his previous works. These fans will surely appreciate the attempt of the artist to evolve his music towards new grounds. Re:member will not be the most catchy and enjoyable entry in Arnalds’ wide catalogue of records, but it is definitely a new important chapter in a musical career that has always seen him as a pioneer of modern classical music rather than just a follower of trends.
As a final note, Arnalds’ new LP is also characterized by the use of the Stratus Piano, a new music system invented by the artist that generates pseudo-random combinations of notes each time he presses a key on his piano. Two years have been spent to implement, tune and refine the Stratus Piano, and I must admit that the unexpected sequences of sounds that are generated by this system introduce a further element of interest for many of the songs of Re:member.
#6) Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, “Epoques”
Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch is a young, talented and quite prolific artist who has gained the attention of music lovers and critics both as composer of cinematic soundtracks and for experimental electro-acoustic albums. Her musicis not easy to describe in a few words, let me just say that it’s substantially modern classical music with the insertion of electronic elements.
On last July the artist has released her second full-lenght LP, called Epoques, which provides the listener with an intriguing alternation of minimalistic solo piano pieces and more articulated songs where piano, strings and electronic inserts are mixed together and create delicate, and sometimes haunting, layers of sounds.
The album highlights the maturity but also the boldness of this young artist in processing and transforming basic and minimal sketches of music into powerful, visceral but also sometimes hallucinatory songs. With the exception of a few tracks that are relatively “melodic” and easier to enjoy, most of the album requires some special condition to appreciate in full the music that is offered to the listener. First of all you must be in the condition to dedicate the full attention to the harmonic constructs that are built by the artist, but you should be also in the mood to be guided across an adventurous exploration of the less frequented areas of modern music.
Despite the many different references that we may extrapolate from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s music (Philip Glass and Bela Bartok are two of them), Epoque is in the end a unique piece of art with its own meaning in the wider context of modern classical music. Surely this is not one of the many electro-acoustic music records that are composed and played for the general public. It’s rather a small treasure of creativity and expressiveness for those who’re willing to enjoy a continuous shift of emotion between lighter moments of serenity, and grittier, obscure but impressively emotional and moving pieces.
#5) Poppy Ackroyd, “Resolve”
British composer and multi-instrumentalist Poppy Ackryod has achieved in the recent years a certain popularity both as author of a couple of solid and precious solo albums and as member of the music project Hidden Orchestra, that we have often mentioned in these pages.
Ackroyd’s music was initially characterized by the rigid choice to limit the instrumentation to only piano and violin, that were recorded, post-processed and mixed in her songs. During the years, however, the sonic range of has gradually grown, and in Poppy Ackroyd’s latest album, Resolve, we may appreciate the contribution of additional instruments and also the presence of a couple of guest artists. Violin and piano remain at the center of her music, but there are now other elements that expand the dynamics of the songs.
Stylistically speaking the sound conceived by the British artist for her new LP remains almost tied to the classical canons of electro-acoustic music and if we exclude a few brief moments of experimentation, the album is extremely linear and accessible for a mainstream audience. The songs of Resolve, however, are so warm and beautifully intimate that the lack of depth and intensity are totally compensated by a sense of overall ligthness and enjoyability that spreads from every track of the LP. Listening to this album unleashes in our mind a spirit of cautious optimism and, in this respect, the simplicity of the arrangements and the fluidity of the harmonic architectures make the songs of Resolve capable to hold us in a tender musical embrace. These are precious moments of quiet and serenity, and everyone knows how important they can be, in certain moments, to help dealing with the complications of our real life.
#4) Chilly Gonzales, “Solo Piano III”
I’ve been listening for so many years and I still get excited by the music written and performed by Chilly Gonzales, the canadian pianist, composer and entertainer who has contributed to the revival of the modern classical genre. As an amateur pianist I also learned some of the songs from his two previous albums for solo piano and therefore since the first day I heard about his new album my expectations were literally skyrocketing. And from the moment when I could eventually get my hands on his new LP, it played almost uninterruptedly for a couple of months in my music player.
Solo Piano III is the third collection of short instrumental pieces for piano that has been released so far by Gonzales, who also declared that the new album will be the last chapter of his Solo Piano project. Some of the thirteen tracks of the record – probably the most beautiful ones – were already shared by the author a few months before the official release of the album, and this has somewhat mitigated the surprise effect. Anyway, being Solo Piano III the third installment of a cycle that Gonzales started as early as 2004, it was certainly not the surprise that what we were looking for in the new record, bur rather the confirmation of the ability of such an incredible and histrionic artist to compose pieces that are so pure and delicate to become, in the end, timeless.
A lot has already been said about the uniqueness of Gonzales’ musical style and the naturalness which he shows in writing music that it’s “classical” in structure and feeling, but which brings inside a modern sensibility and also a “popular” approach to piano music (the Erik Satie of our times, someone said about Gonzales). What we can say is that the last chapter of the trilogy doesn’t depart from the sounds and the style that we already heard in the initial two albums of the project and, as a matter of fact, a few tracks seem taken directly from the previous works from the author. Some difference, rather, can be found in the overall architecture of the album. If the first two Solo Piano records were characterized by a lightness and an overall fluidity that made each one of them appear like one single flow of cristalline beauty, the new album seems to proceed a little more intermittently. It looks like Gonzales is now trying to persuade the listener to focus the attention on the individual pieces and the specific characteristics of each song.
There is a little less accessibility in Solo Piano III with respect to his first two works, but in return we have more incentives to go deep into the dynamics of the individual songs. This partially compensates for the lack of novelty and surprise, I mean in comparison with the reactions that were generated by the first chapter of the project. That said, however, the overall value and enjoyability of the album remains very high and at this point we feel only the relative sadness due to the fact that – if the author will keep his promise – there won’t be a further follow-on to this wonderful and unique musical project.
#3) Dakota Suite, Dag Rosenqvist, Emanuele Errante. “What Matters Most”
One of the most fascinating aspects of music is that there are works made to convey positive feelings and therefore capable to brighten up your days, but at the same time there are many others that insist on emotions like melancholy, sadness, desperation, but still result enjoyable and interesting to listen. What Matters Most, the album born from the collaboration among Dakota Suite, Dag Rosenqvist and Emanuele Errante, belongs definitely to this second category.
The main feeling that emerges from the songs of What Matters Most is something very close to profound sadness or, even better, to that particular emotion that we feel when the pain for an important loss becomes the awareness that nothing will be the same. And this is not something which remains in the surface and flows on your skin without leaving a trace. The music that was composed by the artists is precious, extremely emotional, it manages to interact with the deepest parts of your soul, and you still feel the chills even after the song is finished.
The songs of What Matters Most are relatively different one from the other, but all of them share a few common elements which give a sense of strong expressive continuity and stylistic coherence throughout the whole album. Almost every song, for example, sees the dominant presence of one single musical instrument, typically the acoustic guitar or the piano, which is assigned the task of drawing the melancholic arpeggios or the delicate melodies that constitute the backbone of the song. Around the main instrument we hear gentle touches of strings, sometimes a wind instrument, and ambient noises. Everything contributes to create the rarefied and beautiful atmospheres that, in the end, are what binds together all the tracks of the album. Some songs have also lyrics and the nice alternation between the parts with the voice and the instrumental sections adds a further element of dynamism and internal variety to the LP, together with some crescendo that occasionally arrive to break the moment of stasis that was created by the instruments.
In true honesty, however, we couldn’t expect anything less than exceptional given the presence of Dakota Suite: the band from Leeds has always released albums of rare beauty as only the great musicians can do. Despite the undisputed skills of the artists involved in this project, the album took a long time before being completed. The reason is clear, however. It’s sufficient to listen with attention one single song of the LP to appreciate the maniacal care that was applied to every details, and also the effort that was spent to reach the impressive balance which exists among all the individual instruments.
#2) Nils Frahm, “All Melody”
The experience that I had when I first listened to All Melody, which is latest work by German composer Nils Frahm, was not totally positive: there were for sure a few moments of great elegance and delicacy, but there was no song that caught my attention or generated any particular feeling. I left the record playing in background while I was busy writing some document, and after a while I started to realize that part of my thoughts were turned to the music and I was definitely enjoying the subtle melodies that this album is plenty of. All of a sudden, the crystalline beauty of this work was finally revealed to me and I also understood the meaning of the title of the LP: these are pure melodies, rarefied musical lines that slowly and gently emerge from the white noise that surrounds us, like that phenomenon of lateral vision which makes our eyes more susceptible to the movements that occur outside the field of view.
From a musical point of view, this album is characterized by very slow rhythms and an extremely minimal approach to composition. The typical elements of Frahm’s music, which are the combination of analog and digital instruments and the perfect fusion of electronic and modern classical styles, are all present, but the architecture of this work is so bare and essential as we didn’t hear for long in his discography. But be careful, if the compositional structures are so essential, the tonal and dynamic aspects of the songs are absolutely rich. The sounds that come from the album are warm, soft, engaging. The artist has used a large number of different instruments and in global terms we observe here a progressive distancing from the simple piano – which has been for long at the heart of Frahm’s music – to embrace an extremely wider and articulated palette of sounds. All Melody confirms also one of the typical characteristics of Frahm’s approach to electro-acoustic music, which is the capacity to transform – almost imperceptibly – conventional sounds of piano and organ into electronic elements. The picture is then completed with the nice and original introduction of choirs and wind instruments.
In the broader context of the author’s discography, All Melody is the first one produced after he built a special recording studio inside an art house in Berlin (you can see it in the LP’s cover). It took two years of work to complete tthis room according to what were the strict requirements of the artist, and based on the result we hear in his record we can for sure wait with excitement to the upcoming albums that will be recorded there.
#1) Luke Howard, “Open Heart Story”
Everyone has experienced that magical situation when the music you’re listening seems perfectly matched with the images that – in that specific moment – are passing in front of your eyes. And everyone knows that the perfect symbiosis created between images and music remains somehow attached to the notes you hear, so that every time you’ll listen again to the same songs you will feel a special chill on your skin, as if you were travelling back in time to that special and unique moment of your life. Last summer I was driving alone, at night, along the country roads of Puglia, a beautiful region in the south of Italy, and while I was passing through the evocative and haunting fields of olive groves, the car stereo was playing the beautiful songs of Open Heart Story, which is the last LP published by pianist and composer Luke Howard. Perhaps because I was about to reach the family after a long period of separation, perhaps because the night landscape was so fascinating, the fact is that Howard’s music, in that day of my life, gave me a wide range of emotions that were so strong that I will never forget that ride.
Anyway, is this personal experience the only reason why Open Heart Story is here in the first position of the chart? The answer is negative. As a matter of fact, after many listens of the LP I can say without any doubt that the value of Luke Howard’s record is absolute and objective. This is heavenly music that has the capacity to make you feel connected to the world around you, or to recover from your memory some melancholic moment of your past.
On the other hand, in his relatively brief but intense career the Australian composer has refined an expressive ability that’s really out of the ordinary, and having experimented with relatively different genres such as contemporary classical music, ambient and instrumental minimalism, has put him in a position where it seems extremely easy for him to identify, for each song, which is the style and the specific arrangement which fit best with the particular feeling that he wants to evoke with the music. It is no coincidence, then, that the journey through Open Heart Story becomes an exciting and engaging ride across many different feelings, and it is surprising to see how easy we move from a melancholic piece for piano solo to a more articulated song with layers of strings, drones and gentle touches of percussion instruments, passing through moments of pure and crystalline musical poetry.
Another characteristic which I love of this album is how the music composed by Howard remains absolutely simple, but this simplicity is disarming and profound at the same time. It’s really like listening to elementary melodies that touch the strings of your heart, or reading between the most exciting pages of your memories. An Open Heart Story, in all senses.
As already introduced at the beginning of the article, you can enjoy the best songs from the selected albums in a special playist that was assembled on Spotify. Two songs from each record, more than 90 minutes of pure beauty.