There comes a time in many musicians’ careers when they decide to step out of the shadows of working as a side-man and announce themselves, and for Nathan Shubert, that time came last March on Piano Day 2016. That was the day the Vancouver pianist released Saga Norén, Länskrim, Malmö, and it immediately caught the attention of Nils Frahm, who added it to his Piano Day playlist and made sure his fans were aware of this new talent on the scene.
Lights and Motion have released a steady stream of full-length albums since their formation in 2012 (basically an outlet for Franzen’s musical perambulations as he battled with insomnia) and their tracks have been featured in scores of TV spots and trailers (ranging from Furious 7 to The Vampire Diaries), as well as ads and promos (Budweiser, Rip Curl, Google, The Guardian, the list goes on).
The outfit has built up a reputation as purveyors of tightly focused cinematic soundscapes that draw on Franzen’s self-taught classical guitar background; fleshing out his richly harmonic guitar and piano compositions with soaring strings, lush synths, pounding drums, and sparky, chugging guitars.
Franzen is a composer who prides himself on writing across myriad styles and genres, and despite the aesthetic unity of his latest work, this eclecticism is out in full force on Dear Avalanche, Lights and Motion’s third album released under the auspices of America’s Deep Elm Records.
On first listen the tracks sounds almost familiar. Not withstanding the fact that you have quite possibly heard a Franzen composition on TV, web or big screen, the band occupy a studied position where soundtrack music meets ambient chill out; where upbeat dream pop meets soul-searching post-rock.
The album kicks in with the euphoric, wordless vocal refrain of opener This Explosion Within. But this firefly has only a brief yet bright life cycle; at just a shave over two minutes the fire works fade away to expose the delicate, crystalline melodicism of Feathers, with its floating guitar lines and pounding yet urgent drums.
Despite the sonic coherence of Dear Avalanche, this is a comprehensive journey through an enchanting thicket of post-rock and ambient modes; from the languid, wintry time-lapse of Silver Lining, to the delicate meandering piano motif of Anomaly, which builds to as close as it’s possible to come to a slow crescendo.
This is also an album of rich contrasts. The digital haze of Pandora’s opening moments quickly blossoms into a seamless blend of laid-back euphoric beats; with optimistic power pop guitars painted in rugged brush strokes across an otherwise highly controlled canvas; whilst the rapid piano riffs of Perfect Symmetry seduce the listener into one of the more purely ambient moments of an album that alternates between road music, feel-good movie soundtrack, and relaxation tape.
Everest twinkles like ice crystals effortlessly circumnavigation the eponymous mountain peaks in a hazy cloud of sound, and Lucid Dreaming is as sedate and dreamy as one would expect from such a title; a song with almost no discernable beginning or end, a gently mesmerising infinity pool of calming strings and limpid piano.
DNA kicks in with all the urgency of a pounding alarm clock. But, after jet washing the sleep out of your eyes to revive you from the previous track’s long night of dreaming, it too melts dreamily away into Anamorphic, where there’s a touch of Sigur Ros, or even (whisper it) Mogwai to the clean electric guitar and infinite regress of strings. After being serenaded with a brushed drum march entering around the two-minute mark, we are gently ushered out by a creeping piano motif, and our journey now brings us to Exhale; where undulating synth strings interweave, all set against a crisp, hushed backdrop of crackling static.
The heavenly strings of As They Sleep unfold like ambient angels watching over us, leaving the soothing folksy guitar of penultimate track All The Way to guide us gently towards the album’s closer with its languid bass drum and cymbals. All that’s left now is the strident optimism of We Only Have Forever, marching us majestically to the album’s soaring close.
Whilst there is a familiarity to Dear Avalanche that prevents it from entering wholly new sonic territory, it’s clear that editors and promo producers the world over will be eager to ransack this generous vault of highly masterful soundscapes to complements their edits. One feels like we are waiting for the time when Franzen will do an Eno and really turn the soundtrack world on its head. In the meantime, here’s hoping that a prolific and consummate screen composer will keep up his admirable work ethic long into the infinite and dreamy future.