It doesn’t seem like music is really pushing the envelope anymore. Most of the “innovators” in electronic music, for example, follow well-tread patterns, latching onto fad after fad in a mad dash for relevance on the dance floor and elsewhere. There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule; they, unfortunately, reside far underground where most people may not hear them.
Most of this powerful, courageous, accident-prone music confuses or startles the uninitiated listener, suddenly confronted by a vast array of alien sounds and rule-breaking with impunity. If one looks upon all of this with a certain curiosity and willingness, one would discover the whispers of familiarity and convention deeply embedded in even the most vexing song. Neil Jones’ Albali demands this open attentiveness from the very first track, “Fornax I.” In order to look up at the sky and see all of the stars, you have to lie on your back first.
“Fornax I” is piping with alpine mystery and gradual majesty. The song clearly announces the presence of brass on Albali, as well as scattered bits of synth and samples adding a fantastical sort of texture. Layered with piano and a number of other elements, familiar sounds begin to mutate and gestate into entirely new creatures, populating a rich and colorful environment.
“Er Rai” is much more indicative of the overall style and sound of the record, propelled by light, pattering drums and a gorgeous guitar melody. Little details, like the dry and hollow plucks of bass echo quickly across the stereo field – and the ebb and flow of a synth arpeggiator rolling in and out. The vocals are gentle and hushed, but certainly in tune and on time and full of verve. They give themselves over to the dreamy feeling of the song and command no more attention than the other elements. It’s the right choice, because it accurately reflects on its true lineage: folk.
Folk music is something I’m only marginally familiar with. I consider the handful of Damien Youth bootlegs I have and listen to worthy of the “folk” designation. Be that as it may, I hear plenty of other musical worlds present here; not just that of folk.
Most of Albali maintains a dreamy, atmospheric quality that reminds me of Sigur Ros and, sometimes, Amorphous Androgynous. In other places I can hear classic progressive rock, especially King Crimson’s Islands and Pink Floyd throughout the years. Albali has no trouble in blasting well past those comparisons. There’s a real dynamism present here; an undeniable and deeply-felt vigor.
Each arrangement, including the devastating “Meissa,” is performed with the utmost precision in timing and dynamics while the mix allows the monstrous, cavernous space of the song to soar of its own accord. This song in particular seems to evoke Pink Floyd – with the wet, chorus-effected organ and the insistent picked guitars. The brass is masterfully employed in this song, lending a slightly heroic/slightly downtrodden cinematic feeling. The brass, refreshingly, plays a large part throughout the entire record, and isn’t just a gimmick on one song. It’s vital to the ecosystem of this record, giving life and dimension to the instruments beneath and around it. It harkens back to an older era, but not in a stale or uninspiring way.
Other instruments are not leaned on too much, as in the case of the strings. The opening strings to “Wezen” – perhaps my favorite song on the record – are delicate and dry, vibrating in the space of a real room and groaning softly underneath the guitar and mournful brass. The sparse piano sends chills down my spine, reaching out for those obvious and perfect moments that hit home. It’s a song that reaches right into your heart with its heavy sadness and beauty like an icy hand.
After so much bleakness and solemnity, you would think the charming and delicate “Acamar” would be a welcome change of pace – and it mostly is. However, when the drums build up and begin in earnest, their sound is flat and unimpressive. Considering the depth of the rolling, low-frequency throb or the full-bodied piano – these drums miss the mark. I’m not sure what precisely I would have preferred, but something about these drums down sit well with the folksy staggering rhythm of the song nor the lush feel of other sounds. They didn’t sound like part of the original arrangement of the song – but that’s only my impression of the performance and mix, and not a statement of fact.
Midway through the album, we encounter “Fornax II,” which resumes some of the style of its predecessor – only this time evolving towards a different melody and conclusion. Both songs have a wondrous, peculiar sound – as though Philip Glass built a “California’s Gold”-style antique music machine with his own take on foot-pedals, pumps, pipes, bells, and whistles. The layers are dense, precise and full of a unique and authentic character; it is unlike most anything I’ve heard.
“Regulus” makes use of layers underneath a slow, simple melody floating down a river. Chunky blues guitar emerges, laying a smoky haze over the track. Subtle, tasteful synth-work builds upon the electric piano and acoustic guitar. Again, the drums are underwhelming, the crash cymbal sounding fake next to the amazing bits and pieces floating around it. It doesn’t entirely kill my enjoyment of this song, and it doesn’t ruin the record – but I’d be lying if I said I liked it. The song intensifies over a marching snare while the vocals begin to distort. Everything gradually flows into this heavy moment and the overall result is palpable.
“Angetenar” is a soothing, if mournful, instrumental track that mirrors the effect of “Elnath” on the pacing of the record: supplying adequate space for the intense moments of “Regulus” and “Arcturus” to dissipate, respectively. Besides “Fornax” one and two, this appears to be another “cycle” or pattern to the record. That, or its just my imagination. Like his mixes and arrangements, Neil Jones’ album itself provides plenty of leeway for your imagination to roam.
“Sirius” has a more disjointed and scattered feel to it than “Regulus,” with hurried acoustic picking, swelling human voices, meandering piano, and a soulful electric guitar. By the end of the song, you feel a bittersweet desperation, as though racing against a glorious red and orange sunset.
The title track returns to the carefully plodded and articulate style of the other songs. It evokes the image of rain, the mountains, the sea. Great, old trees peaking beneath the thin veil of an early morning mist. The chorus, full of ascending notes, elevates us further towards the summit to examine the full scope of the horizon. The woodsy, pure folk acoustic guitar keeps us tethered partly to the ground – a sense of reality, full of its own small, raw beauty.
Albali ends with the piano-led “Achenar.” The slow, steady rising of the brass helps the songs take shape, reaching once more towards the sky. The busy piano notes, like stars, entrench themselves in the thick and unyielding darkness of the night sky.
Albali is one of the most astounding and affecting records I’ve heard in years. It takes chances, but lacks any hint of recklessness or lack of calculation – with the exception of some select drum parts. Everything has an incredibly purposeful and carefully-sculpted ring to it. The mix enforces space and balance – judicious choices made in the face of strange sonic combinations. Neil Jones’ voice is extremely pleasant, boosted by the other voices softly resonating behind him. From beginning to end, this record is magic.
Whether you like folk music or not is immaterial. Albali’s emotion and its truth transcend the petty labels we assign to music. This record is timeless and at home on any world you can point to in the night sky. It’s not just ear-candy; it’s ambrosia for the imagination.