Neil Cowley: Hall Of Mirrors
Out Friday 5th March 2021
Pre-order on Bandcamp
Fusing influences from ambient, electronic, improvisational and contemporary classical, Hall Of Mirrors is an outstanding solo debut from Neil Cowley. It’s personal and moving and stunningly beautiful. It’s a must-listen. Gordon Rutherford reviews for Louder Than War.
Berlin: Europe’s great capital of renewal and reinvention. It’s where Bowie went to start again, to escape from the madness that had engulfed him. On a macro level, it’s where the great economic engine of Europe, the unified Germany, was reborn when the wall came tumbling down. Perhaps that’s why virtuoso musician and composer, Neil Cowley, chose to base himself there as he underwent his own cathartic phase of renewal, reaffirming his love for his oldest friend – the piano.
Hall Of Mirrors, Cowley’s solo debut, is an album that magnificently merges sounds and colours from multiple genres, most notably modern classical, electronic and ambient. It’s a collection that Cowley describes as his most personal work to date and listening to this album one senses its creator’s absolute introspection. As if to emphasise the point, the closing track on the album is entitled Saudade, which is translated from Portuguese as “a sad state of intense longing”. Holistically, that’s the feel of Hall Of Mirrors. Saudade.
Cowley has taken several sharp deviations in his career to reach this point. Just at the point when the sand fills the lower half of the hourglass, he turns it over and starts again. As a young man, he was widely demanded as a session keyboard player, working on colossal unit-shifting albums for Gabrielle, Zero 7 and Adele. The easy option would have been to continue in that vein, but Cowley desired to plough his own furrow. Focusing on a sublime fusion of jazz and rock, Neil Cowley Trio were formed and released six studio albums between 2006 and 2016. Critical acclaim ensued, but by the time their final album, Spacebound Apes, was hitting the shelves, Cowley was ready to move on.
Searching for a fresh sound, he entered into a series of collaborations, most notably with Erased Tapes wunderkinds Ben Lukas Boysen and Rival Consoles. A number of exploratory and exciting electronic tracks were released, however, despite the exceptionally high quality of the output, something wasn’t quite right. A feeling of emptiness dominated Cowley’s thoughts. Ultimately, searching for salvation, he found himself returning to the instrument he had turned his back on. He sat down at a grand piano in East Berlin, in the city of renewal, and began to play.
There was no great plan. Nothing was mapped out. Cowley, the musician, was simply playing the instrument that had kicked off his musical journey in childhood. But things started to happen. The music burst out of the keys as he improvised and before long he recognised that something special was being created. Flames now rekindled, he set up the equipment and pressed record, ultimately creating a quite magnificent body of work; one that is, in essence, a highly personal account of the artist’s deep relationship with the instrument.
Of course, each piece is piano-led and yet they all have a particularly distinctive and unique voice. This is down to each keyboard being treated differently, distorting and warping each track. The same instrument, but projected another way. A veritable Hall Of Mirrors, you could say. Adding layers of complexity – sometimes discreetly, at other times more overtly – are the electronics. And, amplifying that, in a similar way to Frequent Traveller’s recent Real Life project, Cowley uses field recordings of cafes, trams and the cobbled streets of Berlin to texturise the backdrop even further.
Given all of that, the comparisons with another Berlin-based maestro, Nils Frahm, are inevitable. Both Frahm and Cowley create wonderful keyboard-centric compositions that are augmented by an adept use of electronics. Both artists brilliantly fuse the classical and the modern, creating soundscapes that are both thought-provoking and enthralling. And both are great innovators, utilising whatever is necessary to bring different feels and sounds to the party. To that end, similarities can be drawn between Cowley’s solo debut and Frahm’s All Melody.
On Hall Of Mirrors, Cowley takes the listener by the hand and leads them on a journey through this grand old city, with track titles giving strong indications to where you are at any given moment in time. The perfect example is Souls Of The S-Bahn, which is so hauntingly evocative that you feel like you are actually riding that overground train out of the city.
It is an album that is choc-full of stand-out tracks and the incredible diversity between them keeps the listener enrapt throughout. There’s minimalism in the shape of sublime album opener, Prayer, where every note sounds like a falling snowdrop, and Just Above It All, with its gossamer-like arp waves. On the latter track the mood changes when the bassline kicks in, making it feel upbeat and vibrant. There are intoxicating bursts of electronica, typified by Stand Amid The Roar and the rippling chords that overlap the shimmering soundwaves of She Lives In Golden Sands. Close your eyes and listen to this track. It combines an urgent energy with a glacial ambience, making it feel like one is being pulled by a team of huskies across the frozen tundra of northern Scandinavia.
Circulation is centred around a sumptuous melody that dramatically shifts dynamic when a military-like snare kicks in after a couple of minutes. Tramlines and I Choose The Mountain both pivot around beautifully picked piano melodies, with the latter unfolding into exquisite waves of synth. The aforementioned Souls Of The S-Bahn is a spectral, ambient piece that is quite hypnotic. Ghostly voices chant eerily in the background. Then, halfway through, it morphs into something quite different. The piano takes over and the mood becomes almost funereal. The chanting continues but it seems even more remote and distorted now. Initially, Souls Of The S-Bahn sounds like two ideas that have been conjoined for the sake of convenience. It feels somehow unfinished. But actually, after two or three listens, it makes perfect sense. This is exactly how it should be; it’s precisely how a journey on the S-Bahn unfolds.
All of the above are quite wonderful, but the stand out track on Hall Of Mirrors is the breathtakingly innovative Berlin Nights. It begins with field recordings captured in Berlin’s bustling streets. An electric piano economically and abruptly picks out two notes, like punctuation marks. There is nothing superfluous and it’s the spaces in-between the notes that become most interesting. It is a track that is so evocative of that city in the sense that it feels laid back yet, at the same time, highly pressurised. Again, we have that dazzling contrast working so effectively.
Hall Of Mirrors is an incredible album that deserves to be listened to. It is complex and bold, packed with sublime compositions; an immersive experience that takes time and one’s undivided attention to fully appreciate. This is not background music, it is a collection that requires investment to fully grasp its beauty and its brilliance. But when better than now, in the midst of lockdown? The one thing we have is time and you won’t regret donating some of yours to fully appreciate Cowley’s work on Hall Of Mirrors.
Who knows which path Neil Cowley will choose to go down following Hall Of Mirrors. As demonstrated throughout his brilliant career, he is not exactly predictable. For now, in his own words: “sometimes my friend, sometimes my enemy; we are incredibly linked, the piano and I. And for the time being, we are getting along.” We should all be grateful for this period of détente.
Photos: Gray Lee Brame
Hall Of Mirrors (LP|CD|DL) is available for pre-order on Bandcamp.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.