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.