It therefore seemed an appropriate time to post a review I wrote in January 2014 that I neglected to add here at the time:
|(pic taken from the Serein website)|
The corner of music that often gets labelled "ambient classical" or "home listening" is a somewhat overcrowded one. Taking their cues equally from the worlds of electronic music (Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Cluster), contemporary classical music (Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Philip Glass) and other pioneers of hushed instrumental music (Harold Budd, Labradford, Stars of the Lid) the music of Max Richter, Deaf Center, Library Tapes, Nils Frahm et al seamlessly blends samples, synths and programming with strings, piano and other acoustic instrumentation. This approach makes perfect sense, of course. As Max Richter has noted, in using electronic instruments and effects, he is simply using the tools available to him today as part of his musical palette, just as composers of the past used whatever tools were available to them when they wrote for piano or strings.
Occasionally, from the myriad releases associated with this genre, something floats to the surface that stands out from the crowd. Nest's "Retold" is a fine example. Perhaps because of its limited CD run on the Welsh micro-label Serein, it is an album that too few people seem to know about. (The CD is now sold out, although the album is readily available in mp3 format.)
Nest is a collaboration between Serein label owner Huw Roberts and Deaf Center's Otto A. Totland. Deaf Center's "Pale Ravine" is quite rightly regarded by many as a high water mark in the field of 'ambient classical' music, and I'd have no hesitation in saying that "Retold" is easily its equal. The elements that you might expect are indeed present in the music: ambient drones, melancholic piano lines, field recordings, a strong cinematic feel to much of the music. But what makes the album stand out for me is the quality of the music, its diversity, its warmth, the emotional impact and how well the album flows and works as a whole. It is an incredibly beautiful and beguiling journey.
Picking out favourites is a largely pointless task because it works so well as a whole, but "Kyoto" is perhaps worthy of particular note for its strong melody and intriguing interplay of piano, field recordings and what sounds like sampled harp or koto. "Charlotte" is another highlight, featuring a simple and highly effective piano melody, reminiscent of some of Labradford's later tracks, around which other elements are skilfully woven. The delicate and understated "Wheatstone", meanwhile, draws this highly consistent album to a close with customary restraint and precision.
Hopefully this album will receive a well-deserved second CD pressing and gain more coverage than its initial run. It is worth noting that the digipak artwork for the CD version complements the music perfectly. On the evidence of "Retold" and the label's other releases, it is apparent that Serein, like predecessors Touch and ECM, puts a lot of time, thought and effort into the physical presentation of its releases, something that is arguably lost with their mp3 incarnations.
Postscript, 28th July 2014:
The new double vinyl edition of "Retold", featuring two additional new tracks, can be ordered here. Serein will also be reissuing Brambles' "Charcoal" album, again for the first time on vinyl. This is another excellent set of tracks, not a million miles away from "Retold". If you visit the Serein website, I also highly recommend buying Imprints' "Data Trails", a collection of dynamic, experimental ambient instrumentals, quite possibly my favourite album of the year so far.