Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(October 19 - 25, 2008)
Concept album. Is there is more offensive 4-letter word in modern independent music? The word alone conjures such grotesque images as the most indulgent of 1970s prog and the most pretentious of singer-songwriter albums. Countless concepts have crippled great artists, and their devotion to unifying themes and/or story lines often times distracts from what is truly important: the music. Two recent modern classical records from composers Max Richter and Hauschka have tiptoed the concept route, but both have surprisingly emerged unscathed with beautiful works that stand apart from their loose connective tissue. 24 Postcards in Full Color, and to a lesser extent Ferndorf, have each used conceptual backdrops to guide prospective listeners, but each has succeeded on their own terms without the optional guideposts.
Düsseldorf-based prepared piano musician Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) crafted Ferndorf - his most fully fleshed and dynamic record to date - as an ode to his titular home town. Each of the twelve tracks apparently are based on Bertelmann's memories of Ferndorf, and the evocative soundscapes and stirring arrangements on the record cast the town as an uplifting community full of warm feelings and peaceful wanderings. What's more, each song relates somehow to a specific place within the town, and fittingly, the record wanders through peaceful meadows, across glistening lakes and down wholly evocative city streets. Opener "Blue Bicycle" announces a new path for the Hauschka project, as swelling strings and light horns fill out the sonic field, a place previously reserved for his solo piano works. The most impressive display of Hauschka's new found techniques is "Freibad", a blissfully melodic piece of minimal piano and sweeping orchestration. Not every piece on Ferndorf could possibly speak to the listener the way it does to Bertelmann, but there is enough growth and movie-ready scene-setters presented here to warrant close listening.
Max Richter - also a proponent of the ivories, but who utilizes them to much different ends than Hauschka - and his heavenly new record, 24 Postcards In Full Color, similarly hangs on a concept, yet is so potentially polarizing that I'd almost rather not describe it for fear of tossed-off presumptions. The 24 short pieces on Postcards were each composed as ring tones, yet hearing any moment of this 32 minute wonder of a record anywhere but headphones would be doing a disservice to one of this generations most accomplished composers. Despite the choppy sequencing of any record hoping to cram 24 songs into barely half an hour, 24 Postcards flows surprisingly well, with an ambient pacesetter, ultra-brief interludes and fully formed pieces of supremely ominous chords, strings and drones. Just as with Ferndorf, 24 Postcards represents the most textured and varied palette of colors Richter has painted with yet. "In Louisville at 7" and "A Song for H - Far Away" each feature prominent guitar motifs which lightly spray drops of moody sound across the brief canvases that Richter has laid end-to-end.
If you're new to Richter or Hauscka (or modern classical music in general), I'd more readily recommend Richter's genre-solidifying The Blue Notebooks, but you can't really go wrong with either of these records. Taking into account that these artists, and most especially Richter, have sidestepped the pitfalls that frequently present themselves to artists crafting concept records is commendable in and of itself. The fact that many of the pieces between these two records represent some of the most spectral of modern classical music puts these artists in a league of their own.
RIYL: Stars of the Lid, Library Tapes, Eluvium, Fennesz
Max Richter - "H In New England"
"Berlin By Overnight"
Hauschka - "Friebad"
Hauschka - "Blue Bicycle"