Nominally, the desert is a ‘waterless, desolate land’, a ‘situation or place considered dull and uninteresting’. Verbally, it speaks of abandonment. Hardly a place for creative inspiration or experimentation then. Yet, Sam Shepherd, AKA Floating Points, is never one to shy away from a challenge. With a string of EPs to his name, including his stand-out 2011 ‘Shadows’ offering, as well as 2015’s acclaimed debut LP ‘Elaenia’, and a PhD in neuroscience to boot, Shepherd seems like the perfect choice to find stimulus in the static desert-space.
Having spent the last two years touring the globe with a live band in support of the orchestral scope of ‘Elaenia’, Shepherd’s latest project brings this newfound live element inside the studio, and simultaneously brings the studio outside into the desert.
The first in a series of forthcoming environmental recordings, ‘Reflections – Mojave Desert’, is an ambitious audio-visual project. Conceived in the southwestern US Mojave Desert while Shepherd was rehearsing with his band in-between tour dates, Shepherd was so struck by the acoustic interplay with the surrounding rock formations that rather than use the setting as a backdrop for his compositions, the Floating Points band wrote and recorded new works to capture this unique setting, and their place within it.
The result is the five-track EP, accompanied by a short film directed by Anna Diaz Ortuño. The film acts as a luscious visual accompaniment and context to the record, showing Shepherd climbing rock formations with field recording equipment while shots of wiry vegetation and acrid surroundings are cut with footage of the band playing. Somehow, the incongruousness of their presence is negated and they are absorbed into the elemental backdrop.
The record is structured around three short works, ‘Mojave Desert’, ‘Kites’, and ‘Lucerne Valley’, with the two longer pieces, ‘Silurian Blue’ and ‘Kelso Dunes’ interspersed between. Opening with the ambient, spatial ‘Mojave Desert’, Shepherd’s plaintive Rhodes notes atonally vibrate, soon transitioning into the sprawl of ‘Silurian Blue’. ‘Silurian’ is redolent of earlier Floating Points work, such as the ‘Silhouettes’ suite on ‘Elaenia’, building from top-line melody into a gentle groove marked by well-placed guitar riffs and wailing synths.
As the sun starts to set on the band in the film, ‘Silurian Blue’ lives up to its colour and takes on a melancholy tone before the soft synth modulations of ‘Kites’ appear, having been recorded via rock formation reverberations. Similarly, ‘Lucerne Valley’ incorporates the desert’s sparsity in the reverb-filled space between its Rhodes notes and interweaving synth tones.
It is ‘Kelso Dunes’, though, that sets the record truly apart from Shepherd’s previous work. Comprising an ambient arpeggio opening with streaking guitars, rock-steady drumming, and a euphoric crescendo, the twelve-minute track takes Floating Points into darker compositional territory. Gone are the overt electronics and instead the driving force of a live band prevails, supplemented by brief moments of calm. In these break-downs and build-ups Shepherd replicates the classic structure of club tracks, except this time injecting the number with improvisatory energy, rather than the compressed precision of computer production.
Ending bathed in flashing lasers and the Stygian, starry black of the night sky in the film, ‘Reflections – Mojave Desert’ makes for a striking film soundtrack. Without the visuals and context, the record can become excessively meditative at times, yet at its finest moments it re-forms the uninhabitable vastness of the desert-space as a blank canvas in the listener’s imagination, to be filled with inspiration of their own.
Words: Ammar Kalia
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