Kevin Keller’s Shimmering Beauty

Shimmer Cover

Longtime followers of me on Progarchy know that I am a huge fan of musician/composer Kevin Keller (See my earlier posts here and here.) Keller’s extraordinary The Front Porch Of Heaven was one of my favorite albums of 2020. I call it extraordinary, because he recorded it in the aftermath of having open heart surgery, and it is an aural odyssey of his experience.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Keller is set to release a new album, Shimmer on September 17, 2021. It continues his winning streak and illustrates Keller’s remarkable ability to write and record consistently excellent “ambient chamber music”. The interesting twist to Shimmer is that it is Keller’s response to the RPM Challenge, where musicians try to record an entire album from start to finish in the 28 days of February. As he wrote the songs, Keller solicited feedback from his fans on social media, and incorporated their suggestions into the compositions. The result is a surprisingly cohesive and organic-feeling collection of tracks.

The first song, Orchards, kicks things off with a bouncy piano riff that is reminiscent of Minimalist masters such as Steve Reich or John Adams. It’s an energetic track that allows a beautiful melody to develop on top of the rhythmic foundation. One of Keller’s strengths is his tasteful deployment of analog synthesizers, and Shimmer as a whole is a perfect example of that strength. While the piano is the lead instrument on most tracks, the synths provide a bed of ambience that support and enhance the songs, not overwhelm them.

Inverness, the second song, is one of my favorites. It begins with a slow, stately theme that is almost Enoesque in its simplicity and builds, note-by-note, into a fine melody that picks up steam until it fills the soundstage completely. There are subtle bass tones that are almost below the threshold of hearing (at least my threshold!), and they add much power to the song. After the music reaches an emotional crescendo, it gradually tapers off into the ether.

The third track is also the title track, and the best phrase to describe is, well, shimmeringly beautiful. It is a 10-minute small masterpiece of restraint. Keller uses every second to carefully develop the composition before the listener’s ears. Over a simple piano ostinato, some wordless female vocals float angelically, as more musical motifs enter, courtesy of woodwind-like synths. Eventually, some more propulsive elements take over, as the piano playing responds energetically. At the 7:15 mark, the party winds down, and the final couple of minutes are devoted to a graceful, spacier recapitulation of the main theme. I could listen to Shimmer all day on repeat and never tire of it.

“Side Two” opens with Bridges, a fine example of Keller’s ability to craft a gorgeous melody. Bridges is 21st century romanticism at its best: it conveys a wistful longing without a hint of saccharine sentimentality. And just as the listener is getting lost in its beauty, it’s gone.

Ithaca is a very ambient, spacey track with synth strings playing extended notes under a delicate theme played on virtual piano. There is a sense of hushed anticipation to this track; you have to listen closely to even hear the theme. 

Riverbend, at 8:50, is the second longest song. It brings to my mind classic Tangerine Dream (think Risky Business soundtrack) with its insistent, burbling synths. It eventually develops into quite a majestic piece of music.

Shimmer closes with Delta, which is the most “traditional” sounding song on the album. A virtual piano plays the main theme, which is picked up by various analog synths. The production builds until the final minute, when a lone synth plays a variation on the theme into the fadeout.

Shimmer is another triumph for Kevin Keller, who is one of the most talented musician/composers working today. It is even more remarkable, considering he wrote and recorded the entire album by himself in a mere 28 days. The production is outstanding, and Keller’s masterful use of analog synthesizers lends a warmth and intimacy to his music that many other electronic artists simply can’t achieve. 

Shimmer will be released on both CD and vinyl. You can preorder it here. If you appreciate intelligent, well-crafted music that straddles the boundary between melodic ambient and classical music, then there is no other artist who creates more satisfying work than Kevin Keller.

You can preview the album here: https://soundcloud.com/kevin_keller/sets/rpm-2021-new-album

 

Kevin Keller’s Heavenly New Release

 

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.

 

2015: It Was The Best Of Prog…..

2015 continued the trend of the past few years of providing tremendous offerings for lovers of prog.

For starters, Best Reissue:

Minstrel in GalleryThe number of exciting and revelatory reissues of prog classics is growing at an exponential rate. The best one of 2015 is La Grande Edition of Jethro Tull’s Minstrel In The Gallery. Ian Anderson was at his peak, songwriting-wise, at this point in his career, and this lavish set (including a new 5.1 surround mix) does one of the band’s best albums true justice.

 

 

And now for some new music:

Heart Is A Monster8. Failure: The Heart Is A Monster

A great Seattle band of the ‘90s that never received the acclaim it was due. They have reunited 20 years later. They are all older and much wiser, and it shows in their music. It’s still tough, melodic, and full of energy, while exhibiting a confidence and ease that is very gratifying.

 

 

Night of Demon7.Gazpacho: Night Of The Demon

A very nice live set that provides a good sample of Gazpacho’s output. The band is incredibly tight while performing some demanding pieces. This is an excellent introduction to a band whose music is often enigmatic.

 

 

 

deluxen6. Dave Kerzner: New World

Technically, this is a 2014 release, but the expanded double album came out this year, so I’m including it in this list. Strong Pink Floyd/Genesis influences which Kerzner uses to springboard into new territory. This is a concept album with an intriguing storyline – a stranded astronaut has to make it back to civilization on a planet. This is the most “classically prog” rock I’ve heard in a long time, and it’s tremendously appealing.

 

La Strada5. Kevin Keller: La Strada

Kevin Keller is a classical pianist and composer who loves Rush in general and Neil Peart in particular. His compositions are melodic yet challenging, and his production values are top-notch. His latest album is the perfect accompaniment to a relaxed Sunday afternoon.

 

 

 

Lonely Robot4. Lonely Robot: Please Come Home

Before 2015, I knew nothing of John Mitchell; this year I immersed myself in his work, listening to Frost*, It Bites, and above all his solo project Lonely Robot. This is prog with a pop orientation that never disappoints. He is an incredibly talented guitarist and vocalist, and I hope this is the first of many Lonely Robot albums.

 

3. Glass Hammer: The Breaking Of The World

Wow. Ode To Echo was an amazing album, and “The Breaking Of The World” tops it. Carl Groves is the best vocalist they’ve ever had, and he’s no slouch in the lyrics department. His voice works perfectly with Susie Bogdanowicz, as you can experience on their other fine release of 2015, “Double Live”. On this album, the band is fire, powered by Steve Babb’s endlessly inventive bass and Fred Schendel’s keyboards.

Neal Morse Grand Experiment2. Neal Morse Band: The Grand Experiment

Neal Morse continues his streak as one of the most prolific artists in prog, and this time he offers up a true group effort, with all the band members sharing songwriting credit. “New Jerusalem” may be the best short-form song he’s ever been involved in, while “Alive Again” ranks up there with his finest epics. The band tore down the house when they performed these songs live; here’s hoping this is more than a one-time experiment.

Riverside Love, Fear, etc.1.Riverside: Love, Fear, and the Time Machine

For their sixth full-length album, Riverside has tightened up their sound to deliver their best set of songs ever. Mariusz Duda marries the ambience of his Lunatic Soul project to a definite ‘80s sound – Discard Your Fear would be right at home on a Tears For Fears album, while Duda’s bass work has Peter Hook’s influence all over it – and the result is the most beautiful album I’ve heard in years. I listen to it two or three times in a row, I put it aside for a while, and I bring it back out. I have yet to tire of it. Be sure to read Erik Heter’s excellent and illuminating interview of Duda.

Kevin Keller: Prog’s Influence On My Music

I’ve already reviewed Kevin Keller’s excellent new album, La Strada, in Progarchy, and he is now posting some fascinating behind-the-scenes videos of what went into the making of it.

In this one, Keller talks about how influential Genesis, Yes, and Rush (Neil Peart in particular) are to his music. Something Progarchy readers can definitely relate to!

 

Kevin Keller’s “La Strada” – Is This the Future of Instrumental Prog?

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I first became aware of Kevin Keller’s music through mere chance. Driving home from a family vacation at the beach, we were all tired (and sunburned!) and I turned to the “Chill” channel on the satellite radio. The miles went by as generic ambient music filled the car.

Then a track began playing that made me perk up my ears and listen closer. It wasn’t aimless synthesizer noodling; no, this was music with some depth, melody, and real beauty. Hitting the info button on the radio, I noted that the song was “Distanced”, by Kevin Keller. I made a mental note to investigate further when we got home.

I did, and I spent quite a bit of time enjoying the generous offerings on his Soundcloud site. Before I was done, I had purchased Pendulum (the album containing “Distanced”), Nocturnes, The Day I Met Myself, and In Absentia. Each one is unique, but they all feature Keller’s distinctive voice as a composer. His music has been labeled neoclassical, but it transcends categorization. In his official bio, he states that he was first a progressive rock guitarist before he moved to the piano, and you can hear that background in his music.

Keller is about to release a new album, La Strada, which has been crowdfunded, and it is an exceptionally fine work. It was recorded with the Salome Chamber Orchestra, with guest musician David Helpling lending his guitar talent to the title track, and vocalist Marta Karamuz contributing to the final song, “New Beginnings”.

La Strada is divided into two “sides” (are there plans for a vinyl release?), and the first one opens with “At the Start”, which is just that: a brief piano piece with understated string accompaniment that sets the mood for the rest of the album. It segues immediately into “Tunnel of Light”, which is a fascinating dialogue between Keller’s piano and the orchestra throughout, while some electronic rhythms percolate underneath. “Moments Lost In Time” begins with a delicate and somber theme on piano, but it soon morphs into an interesting mix of processed vocals, strings, and driving beats before closing with solo piano. “La Strada” features one of Keller’s most gorgeous melodies. If Rachmaninoff were alive and had access to today’s technology, he might come up with a tune as beautiful as “La Strada”. It features Keller’s piano with Eno-esque sonics that serve the melody perfectly. Side One closes with “Lightning Road”, which is another driving mix of electronic beats, piano, and strings. This song features some of Keller’s most playful and energetic keyboard work.

Side Two begins with what I consider the best track of the album, and one of Keller’s finest productions – the 9 minute, 18 second-long “Beyond The Infinite”. It begins with a rapid ostinato on piano. Layers and layers of sound are added (did Keller multitrack the piano?) as electronic percussion darts in and out from all sides. Deep, wordless vocals combine with ambient synths to provide a bed of sound that Keller uses to build controlled tension on the piano. A snatch of a spoken phrase floats by; I barely catch “The origin and purpose is to build a total…” before the disembodied voice breaks up. As piano, strings, and electronics repeat an ascending phrase, the sense of enormous energy building up is almost overwhelming. Gradually, though, the layers of sound are dropped until only piano and ghostly synths bring the track to an end.

After the sonic explosion of “Beyond The Infinite”, we definitely need some catharsis, and “All Of This Ends” provides exactly that. A stately and elegiac track featuring only strings and piano, this is the perfect response to the previous track, bringing things to a satisfying conclusion. But there is still one more song to enjoy, the beautiful “New Beginnings”. Featuring the lovely vocals of Marta Karamuz, it has hints of Philip Glass, Bach (via some pipe organ-sounding synths), and Roger Eno (not Brian). By the time it’s over, you feel as if you’ve been in a lovely dream, but it’s time to return to reality.

Since the early ‘80s, I have enjoyed the music of many gifted composers of contemporary instrumental music. While the majority of so-called “New Age” music is absolute dreck, some artists who were unjustly thrown into that genre have risen above it: Patrick O’Hearn, Harold Budd, Mark Isham, Brian Eno, Roger Eno, Robin Guthrie, and Steve Roach have all composed and produced music that will stand the test of time. Kevin Keller is also one of those special artists. He is not afraid to make music that is beautiful for beauty’s sake, and he has a deft sense of how modern electronics can enhance, not overwhelm, his compositions. He is one of the most talented composers working in music today, and he deserves the widest possible audience.

For readers of Progarchy, fans of Lunatic Soul will find a lot to love in Keller’s music. You can access it at bandcamp, itunes, and amazon. Details are at http://www.kevinkeller.com/.