I began this by wondering, how do I possibly write about a new album by Son Lux which follows his previous album, probably my favourite release of 2008, the stunning “At War with Walls and Mazes”.
This is a new album which, not only have I looked forward to for over two years, but which was then recorded in 28 days in February (in response to something called the RPM Challenge) and quite extensively blogged about with video and audio clips by Ryan Lott, the artist behind Son Lux.
As I read, watched and listened to the writing and recording process on the blog I became more and more excited about the prospect of this new album, teased and tantalised by the snippets of audio.
It was bound to end in disaster, let’s face it. Nothing which I’ve hyped up in my mind so heavily has ever turned out well. The last album I invested so much time into bigging up in my own head was a real disappointment, and not because it was bad (it is actually very good indeed) but because I’d spent so much time blowing up the bubble of my own imagined hype the record was bound never to live up to that. So, things did not look good even at the outset. Imagine being thwarted thus by your own, supposedly useful, imagination.
So, you might have the tiniest inkling of just how happy I was when I finally heard “We Are Rising” and knew it was every bit as good as I had dared hope. And here’s why…
I know from my own experience that having a blank sheet with no creative constraints makes it pretty much impossible to create something for yourself. You don’t know where to start, when to end – your mind chokes when trying to encompass the vastness of the possibilities.
In rising to the challenge of writing and recording this album in 28 days it must have given Ryan enough creative constraint to enable him to focus on the task at hand. At least, that is my theory! I believe the deadline conspired to enable him to produce something wonderful.
“At War with Walls and Mazes” was an incredible fusion of hip-hop style beats and modern classical composition. This new album seems to take that style as a starting point and goes to great new places with it.
The songs are hung around a central melody, and most often it is Ryan’s own voice which provides the thread which hangs the songs together, with his distinctively fragile vocal (which he says is “ugly in maybe a cool way”). He then weaves instruments around this, include woodwind, brass, strings, bells, chimes, guitars and drums which, importantly, are real instruments, played by real people, creating textures and tones you can aurally hook onto, which excite the brain in a way which just doesn’t happen with glossy, perfect samples in my opinion.
To achieve this, Ryan called on many collaborators and friends to record parts including vocals from DM Stith, Katie Chastain (Faux Fix), wind and strings from the yMusic ensemble, and drummers Darren King (Mutemath) and Mckenzie Smith (Midlake).
But interestingly, Ryan has taken some of these instruments a step further, playing around with them, not in the digital domain but by getting the musicians to play in unusual ways - highly trilled piccolo, horn stabs, cyclical passages of arpeggiated notes, choppy strings. The same with voices. Voices are recorded as instruments, they sound like trumpets, they wah, they are slowed down, speeded up. His vision drives these sounds into new spaces and shapes.
He then spins these elements into the fabric of the songs, sometimes in a way which puts me in mind of Michael Nyman or Philip Glass, with phrases repeating and building tension and emotion. What I find particularly interesting this time is that Ryan has really used vocals as much as other instruments to drive and thread the songs together.
Finally, Ryan’s wonderfully inventive construction of beats which hooked me into his first album, are present here underpinning and driving the whole thing forward.
Compared to his first album, “We Are Rising” doesn’t have the same feeling of following a single thread, with the songs as more distinct entities, but always with a tinge of melancholy and nostalgia.
The overwhelming feeling I have is that the album is composed, directed and constructed with a masterful vision, with all these seemingly disparate elements woven together to create a coherent yet incredibly inventive record.