It was 1996, and Brian Eno was offering up his thoughts on Ambient Music: “In the early 70s…people were wanting to make quite particular and sophisticated choices about what they played in their homes and workplaces, what kind of sonic mood they surrounded themselves with. My friends and I…wanted to use music in a different way – as part of the ambience of our lives – and we wanted it to be continuous, a surrounding”.
Fast-forward twenty-four years, and Eno’s efforts to create a “sonic mood” have inspired a generation of new artists. In this case, Owen Pallett – a classically trained violinist from Toronto. Pallett started playing solo violin shows from the age of 15, and has since worked with an impressive roster of artists (Arcade Fire, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sigur Rós and Daphni to name a few). Their soundtrack with Will Butler for Spike Jonze’s film, Her, was nominated for an Oscar.
Pallett’s commitment to their own body of work has resulted in four studio albums, and an original soundtrack recording for 2020 documentary, Spaceship Earth. Brian Eno has metamorphosed from Sensei to Superfan, saying of Pallet’s 2010 'Heartland' release: “When I heard it, I just thought that it was really one of a kind. Still is, actually. This harmonic danger that they put in, of just creating a world that is sonically so tense or dangerous”. Eno has since featured on Pallett’s 2014 release 'In Conflict', providing vocals, guitar and synthesizer production to the album.
With the release of 2020’s 'Island', Pallett has created a sonic world that is intense, yet comforting. Recorded at London’s infamous Abbey Road Studios with the help of the London Contemporary Orchestra, Island is all-enveloping and all-consuming – filled to the brim with strings and sonic twists and turns. Pallett refuses to do the expected; and chords are rarely resolved, but roll off into new directions instead. This can be a fairly disorientating experience for the listener, were it not for Pallett’s structuring of the album. By splitting Island into four chapters, (using four instrumental tracks that act as bookmarks), Pallett anchors the whole to an underlying order. It is an intelligent and sophisticated move.
The tracks yo-yo effectively between intricate Sufjan Stevens-guitar type offerings, and cinematic scores. 'Transformer' is soft and delicate, with a recurring acoustic guitar melody played out beneath Pallett’s distinctive vocal. 'Paragon Of Order', in contrast, is heavily orchestrated and laden with atmospheric intensity. While violins are the mainstay of the album, Pallett uses them to various effects depending on the mood of the track. 'The Sound Of The Engines', in the second chapter of the album, is a mystical and other-wordly track that uses violins to accompany Pallett’s vocal. However, on 'Perseverance Of The Saints', strings take a more active role in propelling the track forwards and drawing it to a close.
It’s on single 'A Bloody Morning' that the album reaches its climax. The video to the single was conceived and filmed during the coronavirus pandemic, and features dancers from the ages of six to 72 dancing behind windows and in doorways. The track could be an ode to 2020 – as Owen sings, “I've mistaken self-indulgence for self-care / but do not be scared! / surely some disaster will descend and equalize us / a crisis / will unify the godless and the fearless and the righteous”. Pallett’s lyrics are prophetic, divine and solemn; yet are rooted in the modern day. Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space sees Pallett questioning, “And I wonder who will sing of me when I am gone? / As my body rises like a stone” before repeating “Fucked into space, fucked into space”. The lyrics are jarring in their absurdity, but make sense within the context of the supporting orchestral arrangement.
It's on the purely instrumental tracks that Pallett wields the most emotion. '--- > (iv)', is melancholic and mournful, with strings shimmering behind a stately and sonorous brass section. The track feels very much like an ending for the album, but also for life: a peaceful come down from what’s gone before.
On 'Island', Pallett has succeeded in creating what Eno called “continuous, a surrounding”. This album is an entirely immersive wall of sound that deserves to be listened to time and time again.
Words: Sophie Church
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