Rhian Sheehan – A Quiet Divide.

“A Quiet Divide” see the return of Rhian Sheehan, the New Zealand native originally from the picturesque area of Nelson, now resident in Wellington. Since 2001 he has been musically active with an ever-increasing international profile as both a solo artist and as a composer for film, television and installations. His music has appeared on programs and channels such as Top Gear, The Discovery Channel, The National Geographic Channel as well as for companies such as Go-Pro, Nike and Google. He has also composed predominantly for documentaries and a variety of short films. “A Quiet Divide” is his first full length studio album since 2013’s “Stories from Elsewhere (Loop Recordings) and sees worldwide release on Loop Records on October 5 on Double White Vinyl / CD  and Digital.

“Known for his fusion of cinematic post-rock with electronic and chamber music, Sheehan is set to release his new studio album “A Quiet Divide” this October, his first of the kind in over five years. His new work is a sublime marriage of orchestral chamber music, cinematic guitar and synth soundscapes.” 

“Elegy for the Past” with an album that consists of over a dozen musicians and many instruments, the opener eases you in for the sonic journey about to unfold. Uplifting ambience meets the kind of static noise that sounds like a break in transmission or things that are disintegrating. The ambient drones are similarly affected and are not pure in nature. They are also the type that do not grow stale or tired and are ones that I can listen to endlessly and not get bored. You get the free, uplifting feeling as they cascade and jostle with their long lines, while illuminating the track with a light filled exultant sound.

“The Absence of You” sees the introduction of the combination of piano and strings. The instruments work in tandem in creating a piece of music that is rapid in its pace in a forward moving chopping motion. Reaching areas of grandeur additional strings weave their way across bringing with them a sense of intense concentration and emotion. In cinematic terms the music would accompany scenes of dramatic and intense action such as important journey or perhaps the importance of reaching someone. The music goes through several movements such as a subdued piano and strings section, before it bursts into the final stanza where the music leads up to its final dramatic moment and returns to the opening motif.

“Lost Letters” there has something to be said for the intimate nature of close recorded piano that helps convey emotion that is central to  the composition. It just sounds like you are present in the room when the piano is being played and there is a deep-seated innocence in the music created. For this track the pairing of piano and strings have an altogether different approach and feel to the previous track. The gentle and controlled pace of the piano is complimented by strings which hang and swoon, squeezing out emotion with every bow. The pairing of Sheehan and Justin Bird both on piano works nicely as the tones are different, but the highlight for me, is the string section. The depth of sound which they create as well as the previously mentioned emotion, transports the listener away from whatever cares they are currently experiencing and as the strings soar, so does the emotions of the listener.

“Soma Dreams” gritty sounds, Japanese dialogue, guitars, drums and strings are just a part of the selection of instruments on this track that comes across like a folktronica work that Japanese artists have made their own. The track is a swirling cacophony of melodic touches, almost breakbeat like drums and an overwhelming sense of pure innocence and joy. The rhythm is playful, the tones bright and the feeling of exuberance oozes out of the track. Towards the end the strings that were lurking throughout become more present and delightfully finish the track with the same refreshing rhythm and melody as before.

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“Beneath Us and the Dying Starlight” innocent chimes and swirling sounds carry on the feeling of the previous track, however strong minimal piano and ghostly ambient tones, which are reminiscent of “Elegy of The Past”, lead you in a large-scale direction with the string section devouring the music with the sound of an army rising and swaying as one. As a headphone listen , this is pure joy as the music keeps searching and growing, pulsing in waves. When you think about music that includes fragility, euphoria and a perfect combination of contemporary and classical styles, you can’t go past a piece such as this. If there is not a smile on your face or sense of peace in your mind when listening to a work like this, then I am not sure what would bring this state to you.

“We Danced Under a Broken Sky” the opening part of this track gives you the feeling of instruments that have had string or some material added to them and had the wind and its various breezes play them. If “Beneath us…” took the album to a new level, then this fine piece of music takes it further and further. Propelled by a full and rich string section, angelic vocals and minimalist introspective piano, the music ventures into the kind of territory that Japanese giants Mono are renowned for. The crashing drums signal the cinematic and symphonic post rock textures and sound that elevate the track. The noticeable quality is the restraint shown as this particular part of the track could be extended for a decent amount of time (much like Mono do with their epics), but however it us pulled back from the precipice almost teasing the listener before fading out with feedback and returning with piano, strings and Anna Edgington’s delicate vocals slowly droning out to completion.

“Towards the Sun (feat. Levi Patel)” what sounds like a predominantly drone track actually is a sonically dense piece of music combining multiple layers of guitars, vocals, piano and strings to create a piece that transcends genre definition. At times long mournful drones billow, at others angelic voices sound like a mini choir and at others times it feels like a mini orchestral piece. The beauty of it is its use of pace to slowly bring about the instrumentation and changes in texture as the piece moves through its journey. Instruments such as the guitars, the strings, piano and voices are all given space in which to shine, even when the music is reaching crescendo and all the components are brought together. It reminds me of music used during a religious act, perhaps a funeral – not that it is morose, more that the feeling of the music is one of celebration.

“Last Time We Spoke” judging by the notes on the release page I suspect that this Sheehan in a solo setting using instruments such as celesta and piano to create a track that feels flexible in that if played exclusively on acoustic guitars it would be considered folk, exclusively on piano, then modern classical. The way it is mixed reveals more little details and provides further clarity from its opening and closing parts which sound as if they are taken from a recording where most of it was destroyed. The subtleties of the textures in the track reveal organic sounds and a slight ambience that sounds like the voices that have highlighted other tracks. If the title is anything to go on, the “The Last Time We Spoke” is a reference more to memory than it is feeling.

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“Atlas” sounding like a bubbling retro sci-fi influenced beat less techno track, “Atlas” shows another side to Sheehan’s music creativity – come to think about it, most of the album does the same to be honest, such is the diversity of material. There is a murkiness to the track that suits the style as the pulsing Synths rapidly cascade across the soundscape and around eventually enveloping the listener. There is a sense of distance, as if you are out in the atmosphere and the air howling around you, while your blood is furiously pumping around your body due to both  adrenalin and fear.

“Someplace” sometimes when artists pair modern classical elements alongside those of Ambient they don’t gel so well. However in this case the ambience and electronics that feature here are wholly complimentary and are used in a way that enables the piano and strings to shine. The track changes in stature from slow mindful and deliberate playing through to moments of grandeur, which show the range of emotions that people go through. The mindful playing could be inwards looking while the large-scale moments could be anything from a celebration to a release of emotion. At the beginning ambience opens the track before the piano is introduced. At the end the same piano motif returns, however minus the ambience. I can’t help but think something has changed in the narrative of the music for the good.

“All Who Remain” fuses soaring wind soaked ambience with this otherworldly spectral sounds before expanding on the ambience and pairing it with more experimental electronic treatments. You could imagine this track to be influenced by some of Sheehan’s documentary work with the use of dialogue to provide some sort of narration, or to turn the listener onto a musical cue. The ambience features is a bustling one, that soars and comes in waves with a howling quality to it. Quiet possibly the most sound art related track on the album and one that feels like it would suit a documentary or installation nicely.

“April” is the kind of track that tugs at the heart-strings. The piano manages to not fall into melancholy, nor stark sounds, it sounds pure and rich . The string section rises and swoons and the crotales provide a whimsical innocence that I am personally a sucker for. The track itself is the type that you could build an album around. You have moments of contemplation, a space for instruments to intersect and compliment each other and then finally, the music is given an opportunity to expand on its humble beginnings and becomes elevated to another level. As the track progresses it feels as if a whole orchestra is at once all rising as you feel the music become more intense, with the strings in particular aching with emotion. I defy any listener to not get goosebumps listening to this (or for that matter any of the tracks on the album).

“1982” stylistically the album’s closer has much in common with “All Who Remain”. The ambience and distorted dialogue return, but this time the track as a whole is more weather damaged and under a cloak of sorts. It’s like the latter track has been copied several times over which changes the quality of the sound. It is then dismantled and reconfigured. This track features more dialog than “All Who Remain” with the ambience being denser and more murkier the aforementioned track. The piece finishes with the slow dissipation of the drones to silence, which is fitting as a final communication from the artist to his audience, in the way that all has been said throughout the album, rather than as a sense of finality,  it is an open-ended finish.

It’s quiet easy to notice a bad album, they tend to be quite obvious. They are not a joy to listen to, the parts can be clunky or uninspired. However, when you come across an album such as “A Quiet Divide”, the music flows so well that you can easily get lost in it and you need to take a step back and just appreciate what a work of art it is. The music comes of as effortlessly good, that is not to say that little effort has been put into the album, quite the contrary, the talent involved here makes it seem so easy because the album is that oustanding. Sheehan and his list of highly talented collaborators and studio crew have made a record that is deeply impressive and one that rewards the listener with repeated listens just because A) how good it is and B) how sonically rich, emotive music is. Easily a contender for album of the year.

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