Frahm taps into further possibilities of his form.
Nils Frahm’s early releases were solo affairs; armed with a piano and synthesizers, the composer found an inexplicable balance between Satie-esque minimalism with electronic grandeur, making for elegant but overwhelming soundscapes. All Melody, Frahm’s latest, marks a significant change of direction for the artist. Holed up in an East Berlin studio rebuilt to his fussy sonic demands, Frahm gathered a cluster of other musicians, including a choir, and has crafted his most expansive release yet, one that synthesizes his prior innovations with a new compositional palette.
“The Whole Universe Wants to Be Touched” epitomizes this fusion from the outset, rolling out on wordless vocals and somber organ lines that gradually resolve into a single humming line receding into the horizon, setting an atmosphere that bleeds into “Sunson.” Gradually layering moaning lines of instrumentation on this base, “Sunson” is a cosmic voyage in a ship without fuel and failing life support, with blurting lines of synths that reflect the winking-out of lights of a dying machine. Yet there is also an intrusion of gasping pipe sounds and a throbbing bassline that add an exotic flavor to the haunting drift, weaving a lively, dubby texture into the proceedings.
This unpredictable streak runs through similarly long explorations like “Human Range” and “All Melody.” The former begins as pure ambient groan before welcoming a trumpet redolent of electric Miles: spacious and thin, a lone wanderer in the dark. Eventually, a string section slides into frame, adding short loops of swelling emotion before the choir does the same. The choir crescendos and splits, pitted against each other to compound their haunting chants. The title track, meanwhile, could easily slip onto one of the more experimental European dance music labels, its percolating synth floating against a deep background that echoes the notes back onto the rhythm. Contrasting lines enter and exit like ships passing in the night, often moving in the opposite direction. Though less varied than other tracks on the album, “All Melody” epitomizes the way that Frahm consistently finds ways to stack sounds while privileging the open areas around his notes, maintaining the fundamental tone even as maximal techniques are inserted.
Elsewhere, Frahm employs his older style. “My Friend the Forest” is a simple, halting piano pattern deepened by the artist placing microphones inside his instrument in a continuation of a technique he used on Felt, which captures sounds of the strings scraping as they slide up and down that gives the track a subliminal scratching that vaguely recalls some of David Lynch’s abstract soundtracking. “Forever Changeless” strips this formula down further until the tension between the faint hammering scratches and the elegiac melody becomes the compositional focal point. “Fundamental Values” adds a string section to this balance, exacerbating the mournfulness of Frahm’s acoustic approach.
At nearly the maximum length of a CD, All Melody runs the risk of losing steam, especially given Frahm’s constrained compositional style, yet if anything the album only gets stronger as it nears the end. “#2” sounds more like music from a film than the actual film soundtracks that Frahm has recorded; its creeping synths and artificial, howled vocals could almost pass for John Carpenter playing on contemporary equipment. “Momentum” sounds ready for symphony halls with its mix of heart-wrenching choir, pipe organ and subtle arrangement. “Kaleidoscope,” the album’s finest track, is perhaps Frahm’s densest work to date, rapidly cycling marimba percussion over distended vocals as individual shifts in the volume of each element give the static composition the impression of spiraling motion. By the time that Frahm closes out with the tranquil organ of “Harm Hymn,” he’s definitively proved that his entire method is kaleidoscopic, a fixed pattern of seemingly endless permutations. With this shakeup of additional musicians, Frahm only taps into further possibilities of his form.