By MAX VAN ZILE
Elaenia is the full-length debut of English DJ Sam Shepherd, known as Floating Points, who had released a few minor projects in the dance scene and who has reportedly spent five years crafting this album. The finished product was worth the effort.
In its complexity, ambition and technological pulse, Elaenia sounds like music of the future. It is difficult to pin down a genre — although most transparently associated with electronic music, it undoubtedly includes elements of free jazz and the compositional rigor of modern classical. Its best moments, like the soaring strings-and synths climax on “Silhouettes (I, II, and III)” and the hypnotic echo of “Argente,” are absolutely beautiful.
Shepherd’s technique is to layer keyboards, drums, strings and massed vocals in complex, wordless sequences. The music is often very minimal, and long passages are devoted to one musician playing, quietly. He says it was conceived as one 42-minute piece of music, and Elaenia reflects his intention. Themes fade in and out, and the transitions are so seamless that the album sounds more like one long groove than a series of isolated tracks. However, it has a distinct rise and fall: after the ambient opener “Nespole,” the album is bookended by two standout full-band pieces that surround more quiet, abstract tracks.
“Silhouettes (I, II, III)” and “Peroration Six” are absolute must-hears for any music fan. “Silhouettes (I, II, III)” is a long showcase that moves through several sections, with a lovely string section and complex, jazzy drumming. “Peroration Six” is a slow build that ends the album on an intense climax. The track begins with a distant, repeating synth note, then continues to add in new elements until the roaring jam abruptly stops. The three dissonant, rising notes that play right before the album ends seem to imply a building out of control, as if the album collapsed on itself.
Shepherd is an ingenious creator of sound. He has a Ph. D. in neuroscience, he’s an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, and the album cover was created with a harmonograph he built from scratch. His influences are vast, obscure and wide-ranging, and evidence of his intelligence and work ethic are all over Elaenia, in the complexity of the sound and its technical skill.
Despite its status as electronic dance music, Elaenia displays an old-school appreciation for great live performance, in particular, the drums, which are simply some of the sickest I’ve heard this side of Neil Peart. In fact, Elaenia would benefit from more rhythm throughout; the album’s best tracks involve drummers Tom Skinner and Leo Taylor. Without them, the middle of the album can bog down into spacey abstraction. This is the record’s only flaw — sometimes, in the middle, it borders on uneventful.
But really, Elaenia demands to be listened to all at once: in the context of the album as a whole, the slow passages become meditative rather than boring. The muted refrain of “Thin Air” echoes a similar melody, played on lush synths, on the song before it, and “Elaenia” morphs into a slow, dark lullaby. It’s rare for music this ambient to be this compelling — like a 42-minute dream sequence. Often, it even evokes emotion — this is certainly true of the downcast “For Marmish” and the beautiful heights of “Silhouettes.”
Shepherd is nominally a DJ, yet the music isn’t very danceable. Though it often maintains a rhythm, there are many long, quiet moments of stillness. It’s not hooky or catchy, nor is it meant to be; evidently the work of an exacting, precise composer rather than a beat-slinging clubber. However, Shepherd’s aesthetic could use refining — if the album could sustain the quality it hits during its peaks for the duration, it’d be a classic. Nonetheless, Elaenia can be appreciated for its complexity and sublime moments by any music listener regardless of personal taste — a sure sign of a great album.
Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]