It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since German composer Nils Frahm released his heretofore masterwork, Spaces.
You know what they say: Time flies when you’re making achingly gorgeous post-classical, quasi-ambient minimalist organic dance music for piano. (Surely someone says that.)
Spaces was Frahm’s breakthrough, a collection of live recordings that showcased his command of the piano’s melodic and percussive qualities, as well as his inventive approach to deploying the instrument’s sound. Among an early 21st century wave of modern musicians who blended classical, electronic and pop music, Spaces established Frahm as the one with the most crossover potential. His music is hard not to like.
His new full-length, All Melody, is Frahm’s first major solo work since Spaces, and it finds its maker exploring new sounds and new spaces with often stunning results. Over the past few years, Frahm has scored films, collaborated with other artists (like singer-songwriter Woodkid and hip-hop producer DJ Shadow) and reunited with the band of his youth. Along the way, he has clearly indulged some sonic wanderlust; All Melody feels like the first delectable fruits of that labor.
You don’t have to wait long to hear it, either. Where Spaces was icily precise and narrowly focused on the piano, All Melody begins with two minutes of warm, creaky pump organ and a chorus of human voices singing ooohs and aaahs. The song is called “The Whole Universe Wants to Be Touched,” and it bleeds right into “Sunson,” a nine-minute Frahm insta-classic that evolves from an organ drone to a minimalist techno tune built out of tones that sound like plucked strings and real drums and woodwinds.
Whether or not they are those things is unclear, and that doesn’t matter much. For the past two years, Frahm has been building out his dream studio—now called Saal 3—in an old art space called the Funkhaus in Berlin, where All Melody came to life as the borders between instruments and sounds and technology blurred. Says Frahm: “I heard a synthesiser which sounds like a harmonium playing the All Melody, melting together with a line of a harmonium sounding like a synthesiser. My pipe organ would turn into a drum machine, while my drum machine would sound like an orchestra of breathy flutes. I would turn my piano into my very voice, and any voice into a ringing string.”
Throughout All Melody, Frahm dips into this custom library of shapeshifting tones, while occasionally re-centering the album with a simple piano tune. “Human Range” sets a fragile trumpet melody against ambient noise and a clip-clop rhythm. In “Kaleidoscope,” big, ominous horn sounds sit right up against what sounds like pump organ sequenced to burble at hyper-speed. By contrast, “My Friend the Forest,” “Forever Changeless” and “Fundamental Values” provide palate cleansers and respite from Frahm’s predilection for heart-swelling crescendo. Each is recorded so intimately, you can hear parts of the instruments moving as they create Frahm’s desired sound. It’s like listening to a recording of your vital organs as they keep you alive. It’s breathtaking.
All these new sounds are lovely, but make no mistake: the Funkhaus is a major player on All Melody, too. You can literally hear it on techno-leaning songs like “A Place” and the title track, whose flutter and buzz are softened by the hiss and echo of space. The same goes for “#2,” at least until its final third, when it surges into a 50-foot-tall wave of shimmering melody before receding again. Few, if any, do more with dynamics than Frahm, and access to his ideal recording space only highlights that.
That’s part of what makes All Melody so exciting. Nils Frahm was already a master at his craft. Now he has a place to really see where he can take it. Or…well, he could abandon the space and go in an entirely different direction, if he wants to. He is an artist, after all. Either way, it will be fascinating to follow his journey from here.