There was something incongruous disturbing the north London jazz waters. As the darkened stage of Islington’s Assembly Hall remained empty, an obscure and nebulous playlist of disassembled music foggily filled the hall. It was all distorted piano notes and a rising, swampy click layering tension like a rope.
Just what was about to crawl from the primordial gloop of London’s digital jazz scene?
Sam Shepherd readied himself to stride from the carcass of his cocoon. For five years he’s been expanding the DNA of his Floating Points guise in a variety of musical settings, writing a PhD on neuroscience, delivering a bold DJ residency in London’s Plastic People and releasing ever-changing missives on Eglo Records that gently triangulate his pensive club sound.
Whilst his personal trajectory stretches from this point back half a decade, we in turn had been greedily feeding for several weeks from the elusive and frugal seven tracks that barely span across the 43 minutes of debut album ‘Elaenia’.
You also get the distinct impression that ‘Elaenia’, a surprisingly coy and dreamy journey was conconcted to fill the gaps that exist in music as much as it was to sway us with its fragile beauty. But last night, as Sam Shepherd crouched amongst his synths centre stage, dwarfed by his own, naive orchestra he was a musician clearly prepared to unleash something considerably more ambitious that just post-rave Polyfilla.
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Islington’s Assembly Hall stage had soon filled up with a four piece string section, three dextrous wind players, the conventional rhythm section as well as a 20-odd person voice orchestra to drown our ears in splendour.
This collective were soon vibrating their instruments to rise out of the formless and organic thrum of his warm up tracks. They began with a teasing brass and wind interplay. It was a series of musical phrases deployed in tiny bursts of violin and a technique that recreated the aqueous mood of Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’.
It transpired to be a lavish and ambitious intro that confounded the hall before the musicians dropped into the three part album mainstay of ‘Silhouettes (I, II, III)’. This, the longest track on the new album was an extended trip into crescendo with swells and drops that pivoted around his jazz stained live drummer’s blizzard of cymbals, Shepherd’s own laconic and croaky keys and his saxophonist’s liberating and violent solo that traversed the rising, agonised explosion. The audience noisily urged him on till silence wrapped us all once more.
Next up ’Argenté’ returned to the plucked violin melodies that sounded faithful to the album rendition. These strings were alternately picked then bowed to create rival textures until we descended into a more propulsive, bleepy synth excursion. It was a long and ranging track echoed the album but also found itself smeared in tweaks, flourishes and expression that the recording never enjoyed.
‘For Marmish’, the last song proper from his album, a jagged sonic beast rises with melancholic and thoughtful keys that hovered, swaying between the sweeping majesty of Shepherd’s jazz fanaticism, its restless, aggressive percussion and the more linear boom of club culture.
Then as mysteriously as his set had risen from the murky, throbbing background music then his performance vanished coldly and the rude interjection of the main ceiling strip lights puts pay to any appeals for an encore. We are left with the uncomfortable realisation that Floating Points has made a mockery of the predictable automation and theatrical reproduction of club culture as “live experiences”. His ensemble is a thrilling ecosystem of sound.
We were also left a little bruised, yearning for more and craving to understand it better. At junctures it was brutal. At others so vague. Floating Points new body of work always feels slightly elusive as it traverses a limbo between electronica, jazz and an occasional heady, cerebral funk that evades our usual congregations of reference points and understanding. In short it sounds new, even if his instrumentation is centuries old.
It is therefore ‘Elaenia’s ambiguous and equivocal nature that compels. And we can’t wait to keep reaching for her again and again until we realise it is truly one of the best albums of 2015.
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Words: Matthew Bennett
Photos: Harpreet Khambay