UK Release Date – 16th September 2016
Mm, concept albums. They are definitely an acquired taste. Such albums have gone down in the annals of musical history as some of the greatest ever made. Here are some of note:
– Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles: I’m not a Beatles fan, but I agree that it was a milestone for this unique style of conceptual songwriting.
– Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd: I could’ve picked The Wall, but I prefer this masterpiece from the British prog-rock legends, dealing primarily with mental illness.
– American Idiot by Green Day: I may have liked it when I was 11 or so, but tend to dislike it now but for the odd song. Still, its angst-filled story and soundtrack has since been successfully turned into a Broadway musical and Jesus of Suburbia is incredible no matter what anyone says. I tell myself that every day.
– The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance: Never liked them. Everyone else did so thought it deserved a place for all of you emo kids out there. The album deals with death, unsurprisingly.
– good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar: An explosive hip-hop marvel and phenomenal detailing of growing up in Compton, akin to Nas’ lyrically dominant 1994 album Illmatic about his experiences in the Queensbridge ghetto of New York City.
– Juggernaut: Alpha and Juggernaut: Omega by Periphery: A progressive metal double album. A hefty listen, but I would recommend giving it a go if you are so inclined.
Moving on to the crux of the article though: the Neil Cowley Trio. Neil, who has recently been dubbed as ‘the world’s most listened to pianist’ due to his collaborations with pop sensation Adele (he did the piano riff for Rolling In The Deep, don’t you know?), has crafted a soothingly experimental visual-album with his long-time band mates – Spacebound Apes. It is an ambitious work, with themes of “guilt, loss and longing with a few twists along the way”, an atmospheric concept album complimented by a Tumblr blog detailing the story of its protagonist, Lincoln, as well as an upcoming live experience and a graphic novel, penned by Neil himself and illustrated by DC comics and Pan’s Labyrinth concept artist Sergio Sandoval. Very cool stuff.
“a romping, intelligent display of cinematic song-writing”
I suppose visual-albums are becoming a genuine craze nowadays. Earlier this year, the ubiquitous Beyoncé released her second visual album Lemonade to critical acclaim. Now Neil Cowley, a far more commercially underappreciated artist than ‘Queen Bee’, has decided to go down the same route. Spacebound Apes is an long-winded project, one that Cowley has been working on for years, but the output is certainly immersive, complete and pretty breathtaking. This must be the future of music, with its cinematic quality hopefully bringing Cowley’s contemporary jazz style to a wider audience through the use of other mediums. It’s no surprise that the recording studio – correction: concert hall AND cinema (Cooper Hall in Somerset) – had Stanley Kubrick’s visually stunning 2001: A Space Odyssey on an endless loop to inspire the artist. It certainly shows in the music, with its sparse instrumentation complimenting feelings of dissonance, in particular conflicted human emotion and the fear of the unknown. The increasing boundaries of art and scientific discovery seem to have been merged in the latest work by Cowley. All of this does sound pretty pretentious, but bear with me, the story is more human than you’d think, with its heightened stress on the meaning of love linking it to pretty much every piece of music ever made, just in a slightly more sophisticated manner, if you will.
Lincoln’s Tumblr blog posts tell the story of a loner who laments as he looks back at his long-lost love’s past letters, only able to find her via social media where he feels completely disconnected from her. There are years of “radio silence”, the two separated by screens, as Lincoln stagnates in his dead-end London job. It is a bleak satire, but a relatable one. It’s well written too, with Lincoln’s study of work apprentices (and ultimately human beings in general) as a stand-out observation: “I watch them flourish as professional cannibals and die as compassionate human beings.” In a world of corporate sell outs and reliance of technological stimuli, Lincoln’s overbearing feeling of love is all that keeps him human, as he still relies on drugs from strangers and a drive to buy a bigger television just to continue living in the modern world. Eventually, once the blog becomes a third-person narrative, Lincoln and a visiting Emmy finally arrange to meet in a dilapidated London, only for Lincoln to be coerced into a 1984-style laboratory (Cowley does in fact quote Orwell in the blog, too), where he faces a similar ordeal to Winston Smith: “Large words dominated the screen. ‘Love Is Just a State of Mind’. With the logo of the company in small writing just beneath.” The company aims to treat Lincoln by removing his feeling of love to create a more rational and productive human being as if his, and all human love, is a waste of efficiency. Emmy, it turns out, is simply an algorithm; technology has governed Lincoln even more than he first thought. The protagonist is released from his imprisonment in a glass box, left to his make his own choice, which is when the blog ends and the album begins.
Phew. If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to talk about the music. As opposed to Cowley’s impressive work with pop musicians such as Adele, Professor Green or Emeli Sandé, to name but a few, his main output is hip contemporary jazz, which has flashes on Spacebound Apes amongst the more spacey, vacuous and atmospheric pieces which corroborate the “cryptic” nature of Lincoln’s story, as Cowley puts it. The start of the album Weightless truly displays the latter; a brooding track that builds the tension of Lincoln’s predicament. It is a hazy trip of crescendos, simple yet effective repetitions, and a pulsing bass towards its end. In a similar fashion, Hubris Major is measured, precise and calming, its title suggesting the sense of tragic pride of the project’s hero Lincoln, yet its major key instils some hope in the listener. Who says literature and music can’t connect? Again, all fairly pretentious stuff. Sometimes the mood does feel slightly intoxicating as the album progresses; tracks become fairly forgettable as stand-alone songs, but I suppose that hallucinogenic feel of merging tracks is what Cowley has successfully set out to create.
“It’s all about discovering more than what you think is possible”
Governance is a more interesting instrumental, relying on both the unison of all instruments and some ascending scales from the piano as opposed to atmospheric soundscapes. Other more snappy tracks such as The City and the Stars and The Sharks of Competition (what a name!) are finger-clicking, bouncy compositions, allowing for the talents of all band members to shine and a particular highlight was the subtle and lullaby-like Grace, full of gorgeous chord sequences to suit any fan of piano playing. Echo Nebula wouldn’t sound out of place in any dystopian sci-fi film and certainly appealed to my taste at least and, elsewhere, the start of Garden of Love sounds like a slowed-down 8-bit track from Super Mario Brothers. The penultimate track is suitably sombre and elegiac as the title Death of Amygdala suggests, and the album closer sweetly ends on some more calming piano with accompanying sci-fi noises. There are a lot of beautiful, emotive sounds throughout this epic voyage, but at times it does seem fairly repetitive. The Neil Cowley Trio’s jazziest moments of staccato key-hitting and stylish basslines and drumming are indeed the best moments as they pop out of the effort’s smoky soundscapes, but these are of course reined in to produce a more seductive, cinematic effect.
All in all, the album itself is certainly not something you’d listen to on a daily basis, but along with its other components, the whole interactive experience is undeniably interesting and a stunning display of creative output. Lincoln’s poignantly bleak story, as continued in the graphic novel, would be a delight to read alongside its soundtrack: a romping, intelligent display of cinematic song-writing from a piano, a double bass and a drum kit, with splashes of moody electronica. If ever you’d want to experience the full artistry of a musically-grounded visual art project, look no further than the Neil Cowley Trio as an engaging starting point. It’s all about discovering more than what you think is possible, as Cowley writes: “We are all spacebound apes. Whatever way you look at it. However much we delude ourselves that as a species we are at the pinnacle of all understanding, in truth we know nothing.” A challenging project, outside of most people’s musical comfort zone, but with its insightful message and thoroughly moving instrumentals, it is fairly rewarding.
Image: Hide Inside Records 2016