Review: Nils Frahm – ‘All Melody’

Nils Frahm’s creative output has been defined thus far by a handful of distinctive qualities: a penchant for sounds that ooze a certain kind of sentimental prettiness, an aptitude for melancholic, lyrical melodies, and an evident love of the piano as a compositional tool. However, as he tells Crack Magazine, he has “always dreamt of making electronic music”, having never planned to focus on solo piano. All Melody, then, seems to be the fulfilment of this dream – an adventure away from the piano and into other worlds.

Frahm’s interests in electronic music have never been fully realized. Synthesizers have been used in previous records, most notably on the one-off ambient gem ‘For / Peter’ and in his live album ‘Spaces’, but they have always felt like an adornment, something to complement the deft piano work that is his usual modus operandi. His latest record sees him move forward, experimenting with new styles and methods, both orchestral and electronic. ‘Sunson’ begins with a sumptuous orchestral introduction, but soon gives way to a warm, analogue synth-line underpinned by a soft kick and hi-hats. The structure is that of minimal house, but infused with Frahm’s taste for organic, delicate sounds and his classical sensibility.

Following this, ‘A Place’ intertwines similarly rich synthesizers with vocals and strings. The sounds are delicate and feather-light but possessing an unusual depth and warmth that speaks to Frahm’s abilities as a producer. Though the instruments are different, his approach to recording them is similar to that of the piano –  the sound is soft and intimate, yet imbued with immediacy and presence, like a whisper close in your ear.

The piano is fortunately not completely absent from ‘All Melody’. ‘My Friend the Forest’ and ‘Forever Changeless’ are in the vein of Frahm’s earlier works, melancholic solo piano pieces draped in a subtle reverb. His nimble hands spell out plaintive melodic figures, their emotion amplified by the skilful production. No-one records a piano quite like Nils Frahm – it almost sounds as if your head is inside the instrument, the hammer’s gentle movements and the soft shudders of the wooden frame forming a shifting texture in which the notes are embedded – it’s the most intimate a piano can sound. A signature tone that Frahm has spent years developing, it’s one he applies broadly across the record.

The album was reportedly conceived in Berlin’s historic Funkhaus complex, in which Frahm retro-fitted a studio to his own specifications, custom-building instruments and constructing a creative space that provided him with the freedom to fully realise his musical vision. His attention to detail is manifest in the music itself – every instrument, whether it’s a saxophone, an organ or a synthesizer, is treated with care and attention, its spirit brought to life. The album may be titled ‘All Melody’, but that’s something of an understatement – his talent for melodic writing is equally matched by his capability as a producer.

Although there are forays into electronics, much of the record has an orchestral feel, making use of an array of instrumentation – strings, organ, vocals and saxophone. Most of the sounds sit comfortably together, with the exception of the vocal parts, that often sound out of place, forced in. Perhaps the meticulous attention that Frahm pays to timbre simply can’t be applied in the same way to a human voice; the only instrument that can’t be tweaked or altered.

Tracks like ‘Human Range’ and ‘Momentum’ could be labelled ‘contemporary classical’, but this isn’t a term that’s ever suited Frahm. There’s a sparseness, a sense of space and an emotionality at work that feels more like cinematic music than anything else. ‘Momentum’, for example, allows almost a full minute to build the most subtle of atmospheres out of static, footsteps and distant synth tones before the organ’s chords appear. The music is all about tone, mood and feeling – there’s little of the progression and development that is central to most classical music. Where a more traditional composer might repeatedly develop a theme into myriad different variations, Frahm is content to offer the listener singular elements, exquisitely presented, given space to breathe and be contemplated. At times, this leads to a pace that’s a little too sedate and a sense of torpidity; albeit one that suits the music’s meditative nature.

Cinematic, classical, ambient, electronic; whatever you want to call it, Frahm’s music resists categorisation. A piece of haunting chamber music sits alongside an ambient house track, but both are cut from the same cloth, infused with the same warmth and sensibility. The various forms and ideas at work here are brought together in a kind of synthesis by his inimitable, distinctive style, almost the sonic equivalent of a romance movie; sweet, sad, and full of pretty things. Not particularly challenging, but easy to enjoy, and be moved by. His methods may now be diverse, but Frahm’s goal remains singular: the pursuit of wide-eyed beauty, and the evocation of sentiment through sound.

All Melody is out now on Erased Tapes. Buy it here. 

Words: Matt Mullen

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