British musician and label boss (Slowcraft Records) James Murray should be familiar to most who peruse this and like-minded blogs (If not, go back to the front page of this blog and read the interview with him). His last album was the acclaimed “Killing Ghosts” (Home Normal, February 2017) and with his most recent work, a collaboration with Stijn Hüwels as Silent Vigils (Home Normal, July 2018) I had the following to say “The two artists involved have proven over the course of over fourty minutes to be perfect collaborators and hopefully will continue working together. An impressive debut” His latest release is once more for the Home Normal label, “Falling Backwards”.
There is a large focus these days on memory in music and how memories shape our existence, our feelings and who we are as people. This album is part of that musical canon, but it has an interesting back story which reveals more than the other albums that are similarly inspired by the past.
“When I was a child I would fall backwards, literally, if I felt life unfair or hadn’t control of my world, instead of losing my temper I’d go still, silent, bolt upright , close my eyes and just let go. At home, in public. wherever, it didn’t matter. Always backwards, vertical then inevitably, violently, not. After a few of these episodes the people in my life learnt to see the signs and usually someone would be there to catch me in time. Recent scans investigating tinnitus discovered an infarct in the back of my brain. The cognitive effect of this damage are unclear, best guess as to cause is historic trauma. I’d all but forgotten these self-destructive childhood descents, but this surprise transported me back at once to those earliest, strongest feelings, to the bitter intensity of that which mattered most. The long free fall through darkness, the outright surrender of the will and the delicious anticipation of impact. It’s strange isn’t it, the things we do to cope.”
In the press release notes label boss Ian Hawgood mentions that he heard Murray perform some of the musical elements contained on this album live at the Home Normal show in Prague at the start of the year. He had this to say “As James quietly and carefully constructed his pieces to the hushed audience, I took myself to the large, architectural installation below with models of buildings with night lights shining on this modern, yet desolate dream. It was the most incredible experience to hear the music from “Falling Backwards” disperse over the audience and down into this auditorium for my own perceived benefit. With it’s warbled tones and fractured melodies, I couldn’t help but feel I was in the midst of an experience of pure science fiction, happily and playfully lost in some other world.”
Listening to the album on headphones is as close as you can possibly get to this experience, though you do get the feeling of how the sounds contained herein would full up a space nicely.
“Learning In Reverse” starts the album off nicely. Haunting, stormy ambience wafts in from the distance, fluttering sounds, piano and scattering electronics combine with a nice rich mournful drone to give a varies sound pallet. There is a nice melodic touch with the piano keys that reverberate across. The music is dense and full of sounds that bend, fold and twist. It is forever changing its shape which makes it unpredictable. Sure, motifs repeat, come and go, but the every moving swarm of sound prevents it from becoming stale or predictable. You could probably state that the electronics are the science fiction element that Ian mentions, but they are not typical or clichéd sounding.
“Living Treasure” a slightly harsh, buried and degraded drone comes forth with an echoic quality – like its constructed of layers that mirror each other while inhabiting their own sound profile. Pure sounding electronics are met with a more traditional electronica sort of sound (which could be a flashback to Murray’s pre ambient releases). The sounds contained are fragile sounding and coated in a mist or glaze. The tension is built by the fast-moving energetic shuffling electronics, but its the fragile glassy tones and very subtle low in the mix, bass hums that become the central focus of the track. The track contains a nice mix of pure and deliberate sounding elements alongside more chaotic and feverish ones.
“Unbroken Lines” the track feels like its tightly edited and Oval like. Elements feel that they have been processed and cut up before being put back together in a fashion that shows off their disjointedness. This process seems at odds with the tracks title. Musically, the track is I am want to say, light filled. There is a feeling of floating above the clouds. The way Murray fuses the more traditional Ambient styles and techniques alongside an electronica framework, allows the track to work well and keeps the genre of the track to being fluid.
“Falling Backwards” the most traditional sort of drone track on the album and possibly the most cinematic in nature. Orchestral sounding drones, soaring ambience, multiple layers of sound with a melodic core running through it. The piece, other than being the album’s title track pushes the music further into greater heights. With the back story mentioned above you don’t get the violent attention filled dramatic sound, but a feeling of constantly falling, albeit gently. Murray excels in the pacing and phrasing of the piece to build this perpetual feeling that only subsides at the tracks completion. The opening is like the initial movement backwards of Murray as a young child ready to have a tantrum while the remaining part of the track is the continued falling. When you think about how this was a regular occurence in his childhood, the constant feeling of falling would be familiar to himself.
“Old Friend” I am taking this as a reference to the infarct on his brain (which is a form of necrosis). The reason being that this is the physical remnant of what he did as a child and an old friend is someone you relate to that is familiar (much like the habit of throwing yourself backwards). Musically the track is darker than those that have preceded it with it consisting predominantly of darker drones, orchestral in nature, but more ominous in sounds, paired alongside a shrill like drone. Static sounds can be found low down in the mix, like a blurriness caused by the head trauma. Retro sounding keyboard progressions that loop around provide an interesting counterpoint to the drones. The way the two sounds interact it’s almost like a mix of past and future
“London Plane” I am unaware of the title’s reference, but the sound of the piece feels like we are underground in a tunnel. The music swirls around like an ever-growing organic creature. The music is full of haunting sounds, drones that sound like a choir of ghosts, long linear orchestral drones that carry weight and give the track its feeling. While some of the other tracks are fuller in sound, there is a lot of space which adds a layer of intrigue and suspense to the track. A funereal pace, the music slowly unfurls and lets you soak up the mood of the piece.
“Father Figure” the drones that open up this track are radiant, with tensile strength through to sturdiness. It feels well suited to follow on from “London Plane” as it shares a similar pace and ethereal touch to it. However, as a piece of music it stands individually as its tone is different. While “London Plane” had haunting themes, “Father Figure” is more exultant, but also inwards looking. The music is not all light filled as it has an edge that you can’t put your finger on it, nor communicate why, it just feels that way. With the last three minutes of the track electronic tones make the presence known, before taking over the track and changing the feel of it totally. The tones are repetitive and follow a loosely based rhythm while also having a feeling of innocence about them. Possibly this is the soothing after trauma?
“Falling Backwards” sees an artist at the top of his game. Not one to overdo it on this album, having seven tracks (“Killing Ghosts” also had seven, while “Loss” had six) allows Murray to concentrate on each individual piece and make them equally strong. There is no rush, no kitchen sink approach. Just a focus on construction, composition and sound design. If you liked the praised “Killing Ghosts”, you will love “Falling Backwards”. Recommended.