I’ve written the praises of contemporary composer Kevin Keller before. I believe him to be one the finest composers working today (John Diliberto of NPR’s Echoes has dubbed his music ambient chamber), so it is always big news when he releases a new album. What makes The Front Porch of Heaven even more special are the circumstances that gave rise to it.
A little more than a year ago, Keller was told he needed a triple bypass, and that his heart would be stopped during the surgery. As he writes on his blog:
On the day of surgery, I was excited, but calm. I had one last photo taken of me right before I went into the OR, and you can see the joy on my face. I was excited about this journey. I walked into the Operating Room, lay down on the operating table, put in my earbuds with some calming music, and fell asleep. Soon, under general anesthesia, my chest was opened and my heart clamped off. With no heartbeat, my blood was pumped out of my body through a machine that pumped it back in. I was also no longer breathing on my own. I had left on my journey.
Keller took his experience and channeled it into some of the most sublime music I have ever heard. Clocking in at a relatively brief 38 minutes, not one note in The Front Porch of Heaven is superfluous or wasted. He is a master of musical economy in the tradition of classic Harold Budd or Brian Eno. In my opinion, only Tim Story’s music is comparable to Keller’s in terms of sheer beauty and elegance.
The album begins with “Beacon”, which invokes the beacon of light that guided him through the darkness of anesthetized unconsciousness. As a simple yet comforting melody is played on acoustic piano, hushed voices enter, and a gently insistent beat begins. It sounds like a steady heartbeat (no coincidence, I’m sure!), upon which more instrumentation is slowly added. Our journey has begun.
Next up is “Forgotten Places” which Keller writes is “about the “forgotten places” of my early childhood that I suddenly remembered in vivid detail.” A noise like a music box getting going kicks off this track, and once again an acoustic piano establishes the melodic theme, this time reminiscent of a driving Tangerine Dream song. Snippets of radio broadcasts come and go in the mix, until eventually a dialogue between strings and piano takes center stage. The melody is one of yearning and delight; there is a sense of unhurried pleasure as we revisit these memories.
“Just Over The Ridge” is a more somber affair. Chords played slowly on piano over a subdued bed of electronic ambience introduce this track. About mid-way through, electric guitar joins in as excitement builds – what will we see as approach the top of the ridge? A driving rhythm carries us up and over, and we gracefully ascend on the music motif that began this song.
“Into The Light” establishes a hushed expectancy as a far away synth calls to us over arioso strings. This is a very atmospheric track that exudes serenity. When I first heard it, I likened it to a 21st century Pachelbel’s Canon.
“The Sky Below” is one of my two favorite tracks. It features more Tangerine Dream-style electronic rhythms with a slightly twangy guitar riff leading the way. We are still languidly soaring in the heavens, and looking below in wonder and awe.
The Front Porch of Heaven concludes with “Solana”, which is the other favorite track of mine. It features the finest melody Keller has composed in his career, and it is presented in a no-frills manner on piano. A tune this beautiful can and does speak for itself. Some gently insistent synths soon join in, until we are treated to a triumphant chorus of sound that is a pure celebration of life. As they fade away leaving a solo piano, we realize the gift we have been given on this journey.
The production is outstanding – every track flows logically from one to the next, and they combine to create an atmosphere of joyful serenity. The soundstage is spacious when necessary, and intimate when that is called for. Every detail is clearly heard – Keller obviously puts extraordinary care into constructing his musical pieces.
In this “Age of Anxiety” (to steal a phrase from Auden), Keller’s music is a much-needed balm. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen. We could all benefit from spending more time together on the Front Porch of Heaven.
The Front Porch Of Heaven will be released on September 18, 2020. You can preorder it here.