Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending quality time with Nils Frahm’s latest recording, All Melody. The album alternates between intimate solo piano work that is perhaps Frahm’s signature quietudes sound, and more expansive (and long) pieces built upon rolling electronic keyboard arpeggios swirling in delay-effected, rhythm deluges. Not that we need to categorize him, but Frahm is a hard-to-categorize one-man band: he’s a keyboardist, composer, and music producer who makes electronic and acoustic music with an arsenal of vintage gear including pianos intimate and grand, fender Rhodes, analog synthesizers, computer software, pipe organs, percussion, mixing boards, and effects units. The music is a mix of neo/post-classical, dub, and at times, reinvented electronic minimalism. The important thing is that it’s very listenable.
Two of the more fascinating tracks on All Melody that showcase Frahm’s expansive sensibility are “A Place” and “#2.” These pieces are for the most part instrumentals (with bits of women’s choir and strings here and there) built around layered arpeggios that ebb, flow, and circle around, slowly building towards the deluge. In some ways, the pieces evoke Tangerine Dream’s sequencers, Terry Riley’s A Rainbow of Curved Air rhythmic drones, and even the evolving processes of Steve Reich’s Drumming, but Frahm has evolved his own musical thing. Somehow his pieces sound like classic electronic music that could have been made in the early 1970s but at the same time sounds very right now.
There are a few qualities that keep “A Place” and “#2” interesting. The first is their subtle metrical feels: “A Place” is in four, and “#2” has a three/six/twelve-beat feel. In neither piece do you hear 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 downbeats hammered out: “A Place” disguises its four feel through unusual phrasing, and in “#2” the 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6 feel sounds circular, overlapping, and flowing. In this regard, the music’s roundness recalls one of last year’s most talked about electronic music recordings, Jlin’s Black Origami, whose six-beat rhythms I wrote about here. A second quality of Frahm’s music is how its filter effects are an intrinsic part of its structure: the music moves not only through melodic and harmonic shifts, but also through various slow-changing filters that open and close the music’s timbres. These effects cast a spell and as you listen you follow timbral changes unfolding as the music and your attention unfold along with them. A third quality that keeps Frahm’s music interesting is that its fluid metrical feel is continually accented and syncopated even though there aren’t any prominent drums or drum sounds in the mixes. Taken together, the music’s subtle metrical feel, filter effects, and lack of an overt boom-boom drum track keep its sound open yet organized a beautiful way.
Frahm has great touch: he has a feel for knowing how much and how little to put into the music and what strikes me listening to these pieces repeatedly is an exquisite sense of musical restraint and pacing whereby just the right rate of change is perfect design, and seven or nine and a half minutes perfect track length. On “A Place” and “#2” there’s enough variation to make the music dramatic and enough stasis and ambiguity to preserve a sense of mystery.
Here is a video interview with Frahm at his new studio where he recorded All Melody: