A Pianist’s Patient Playground
German pianist, producer and composer Nils Frahm dropped his seventh solo studio album, All Melody on January 26, 2018. In the past, Frahm has worked around past obstacles like recording in his bedroom late at night to the dismay of his neighbors, or a thumb injury that would stunt any pianist. He placed felt around the hammers of his piano to soften the noisiness, resulting in 2011’s Felt and released Screws with the entirety of it played with only nine fingers. For All Melody, on the other hand, Frahm has the ability to let his creative juices flow without any limitations or restrictions. He spent two years renovating and reconstructing a Saal 3, part of East Berlin studio Funkhaus to suit his every musical need and whim.
Frahm’s love for the object of his craft is ever present – not only is he constantly recording new solo and collaborative projects with fellow musicians, he’s also meeting with people like David Klavins, a piano builder who created the M370, a 12-foot-tall leviathan of a piano built in the ‘80s. When Klavins invited Frahm to play on the M370, he spent four days improvising and recorded nine hours of material that would later become Solo. He would release it in 2015 for free on Piano Day, instead asking for donations so that Klavins could create the M450, a 15-foot expanded version of the M370 prototype.
This passion for piano can clearly be seen in All Melody, where he takes listeners through an unexplored jungle of textures and sounds so familiar yet somehow still ambiguous in nature. On many occasions, it is unclear whether the gentle sounds being played are a string instrument, a synthesizer or a modified piano. On the album’s opener “The Whole Universe Wants to Be Touched,” Frahm lets silence wash over the first twenty seconds of the track, then peppering in distant footstep clacks on tile or hardwood, as if listeners are entering into the mysterious space that All Melody will take place. There is a beautiful female chorus delivering elegantly somber “oohs” over what could be an organ or some bassy orchestral strings with restrained grace.
“The Whole Universe Wants to Be Touched” blends seamlessly into “Sunson,” where the ambient noises from the former track are joined with a simple synth melody and followed by a reedy wind instrument making gentle staccato blows. Though “Sunson” is much more electronic than its predecessor, especially with its club-like beat, it still remains gentle and incredibly complex. Similarly, “A Place” combines orchestral strings that start off quite soft but eventually have a more accented nature as the song progresses. They are layered with a punchy electronic beat that is never overbearing, but rather a textured complement to the other sounds around it. The female voices add heightened emotion as they come and go, slowly becoming much more echoed as they fleet around the seven-minute track. These album starters take their time, with each added texture building upon the previous vertically. This ensures that though the tracks are incredibly complex and layered, there is still enough ambient space surrounding them that they never feel busy nor overwhelming.
While the album starts off in a peaceful manner, its subtle somberness elevates into a more eerie, meditative space in “Human Range.” It starts with a lone sour horn whining over sparse xylophone-like ringing that is chillingly atmospheric. What seems to be hollow percussion vibrates gently in the background, but upon closer inspection, they seem to be electronic. The horn’s wails morph into a jazzy hum as they are joined by a co-ed chorus whose hypnotizing vocalizations grow louder and softer, exiting as easy as they came in. As it moves into the title track “All Melody,” Frahm greets his listeners with distant electronic percussion that takes its time to approach the forefront. This beeping percussion becomes the melody and ascends and descends in pitch and scale, with other synths added on energetically. This climactic song ends with a soft fade out and water droplets that continue into “#2.” “#2” starts off gentle and quiet, with a steady beat oscillating around a whooshing atmospheric noise. The drums here sound subtle and tribal but are electronic as well. Eventually, stronger percussion is added, building up alongside the rest of the textures around it. A repeating synthy triplet in the background from the beginning eventually emerges into the forefront, climaxing into nightclub-esque blares of electronica used so sparingly, they are as calm as they are bold. These sounds leave one by one until listeners are left with silence once again.
Though each and every track is immensely patient, they all share the same multifacetedness that allows each song to blend into the next. When minimalistic piano tracks like “My Friend the Forest” and “Forever Changeless” follow their layered counterparts, Frahm creates a much-needed digression that gives listeners time to enjoy the beauty of the instrument of his livelihood. This is not to say that these tracks are sparse – rather, they are accompanied by soft rattles and noises that give dimension to the elegant melodies that Frahm plays with grace and expertise. Though Frahm is a pianist at his core, “All Melody” showcases his prowess as a composer who can piece together an intricate meditation of space and atmosphere to accompany his exploration of the piano.