Post-classical composer Steve Gibbs's debut solo EP, Adrift, is an ethereal piece of work which gorgeously brings together piano and strings with ambient electronic textures. Released in 2014, this solemn five-track EP sounds positively cinematic. It is not difficult to understand why Gibbs' work has been used in movies and ad campaigns. The general lack of prominent melody throughout the album makes it perfect as soundtrack music as well as, of course, being ideal listening material when in a reflective and open mood. The opening track 'Adrift' begins with an ambient soundscape that is astral and recalls Brian Eno's Apollo in its expansiveness. The sounds of reversed guitars steadily filter into the mix. Soon there enters the muffled sound of piano chords which light up this tapestry of sound. We are certainly 'adrift' now: there is a sense of hanging in the ether to this track which sets the atmosphere for the rest of the EP. This sense of intedeterminacy is not a troubling one, but a feeling of liberation from constraints, a cool and calm lack of focus which is perfect for this sombre time of year. Softly dancing, arpeggio-like treble piano figurations come in out of this abstraction and are given warmth and depth by the prominent, swelling baseline.
Nathan Shubert – Folds
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.
Shubert has been playing with various local acts for some time in the Vancouver area, like David Newberry and Jody Glenham, and had established a reputation within the music community. However, he wanted to release his own music, so set himself the challenge of working on new solo piano music every day for six months, resulting in this album. It’s called Folds and was recorded in a little over two days, with the contents having been carefully crafted beforehand.
Folds is very much modern classical, in the spirit of Frahm, Erik Satie, and Steve Reich, and anyone who fell in love with the subtly pulsing and understatedly beautiful Saga Norén, Länskrim, Malmö (inspired by the lead character from Scandinavian TV show The Bridge) will find plenty more here that is to their taste. For one thing, that track is included and acts almost as the pivotal point of the album, even getting its own brief intro track in the form of the 54 second ambient soundscape of Aurora. Even for fans of solo piano music, a whole album of it can run the risk of sounding ‘samey’, but there’s more than enough variety in Folds to make you want to keep going back to it.
There’s the lightly playful tracks like Svalbard Bears, which could easily be the soundtrack to a nature documentary showing young polar bear cubs playing, and then the quieter tracks like the appropriately-titled Thought and Thinker. The whole record is hushed and intimate-sounding, the kind of music to listen to alone at home on a rainy day, while the way it has been recorded (with felt-muted piano strings) gives it a raw and earthy feeling.
Folds’ opening track sets out Shubert’s stall well, with a percussive style of playing and warm, burbling electronic undertones giving it a slightly edgy feeling. You could imagine Thom Yorke murmuring vaguely apocalyptic lyrics over the top of it on a latter-day Radiohead album for sure. The contrast between that and the much lighter cyclical melody of the title track that follows it sums up the emotional depth and diversity Shubert has created here.
One of the main highlights of the album is Encampment, a delicate, slightly whimsical and generally lovely track that’s full of the clicks and clacks of the piano’s mechanical workings, making it sound like the pianist in the same room as you. Another quiet moment well worth revisiting over and over again is Cedar and Stone, a peaceful and plaintive tune that tiptoes along at a much slower pace than most of the rest of Folds.
The album ends with two more quiet tracks after the playful vibe of Svalbard Bears. Aurora II is the sequel to the earlier ambient piece, lasting the exact same time but lacking its impact, perhaps not surprisingly. Sequels are always tricky, even within the same debut album. However, Gaze turns out to be the perfect finale, just under three and a half minutes of beautiful piano playing that absolutely captures the essence of, well, gazing.
The whole of Folds, right down to the Scandinavian influences of a couple of the song titles, evokes a feeling that major label marketeers would probably label as ‘hygge’ to try and capture that zeitgeist. It’s not comfort music, but it is comforting music, warm and empathic throughout, allowing you to go on whatever journeys your mind takes you on while you listen to it. Shubert’s shirts may be loud (seriously, check out his website) but he’s an unobtrusive guide through his own musical world.
So, if your interest – like that of Frahm – was captured by Saga Norén, Länskrim, Malmö, you definitely need to check out Folds. Shubert has proved that he’s more than just a talented pianist for local artists, but an artist on his own merits with plenty to say with his fingers and his imagination. Folds is an album that you’ll be coming back to time and time again when the mood takes you.