the gamble is an odd but wonderful proposition – a ‘getting the band back together’ record from a band who never released any records in the first place.
The big hook here is obviously the presence of German composer Nils Frahm. At the centre of the contemporary classical scene, he’s known for his solo albums on Erased Tapes, soundtrack work, and collaborations with the likes of Ólafur Arlands.
The second hook is the story behind the record, which came together over the course of a decade and sees Frahm collaborating with two of his childhood friends. Frahm and Frederic Gmeiner met at primary school in a rural Hamburg suburb, and would make their own radio shows on rudimentary tape machines. East German Sebastian Singwald became friends with the duo during a school sports exchange, and after the Berlin Wall came down the three of them would meet up to play music during the summer holidays.
In 2007, with all three living in Berlin, they began recording in Singwald’s basement, sampling their childhood recordings and adding other parts, selecting their favourite passages and patching them together. Eventually, an album emerged from these experimental sessions.
Given this fragmented recording process, there’s an impressive cohesion to the record. Each track flows into the next, and the album as a whole is well structured, with a good geography of peaks and troughs. The same goes for individual tracks – take ‘ceramic people’. The synths have a distinctly exploratory feel, but the way the track unfolds reveals supreme compositional instinct. Indeed, it’s this contrast between woolly improvisation and meticulous arrangement that lends the album much of its unique character.
The other key ingredient is Frahm’s talent for conjuring up atmosphere. ‘the invention mother’ starts the record off with a glorious flourish of cosmic spiralling synths. It should probably soundtrack that shot in every space film when you get the first look back at Earth from the shuttle. ‘saddest continent on earth’ is an arid canvas strewn with flecks of guitar and a patient keyboard riff. It evokes that very specific sense of sudden and tender isolation – seeing off a loved one on a long journey, crawling into the bed after the last of the party guests leave.
In places, the gamble has the sort of momentum that you would never expect from Frahm’s solo work. ‘ceramic people’ is driven along by rolling percussion, while ‘chasing god through palmyra’ – arguably the album’s highlight – is an instant injection of energy towards the end stages. With melancholy keys topping a driving, insistent rhythm, it’s obvious why it was chosen as the first taster from the album.
In parts, the album feels too loose to have any kind of sustained impact, and tracks such as the six-minute ‘animal farm’ just don’t have enough variation to justify their runtime. Occasionally engrossing – as you’d hope from a record with so much potential source material – there’s not enough that stays with you after you’ve finished listening. But perhaps I’m being unfair – after all, on all manner of levels this record is clearly more about the journey than the destination. And it’s a journey with an immense amount to take in while the record’s spinning.
Words: Cosmo Godfree