Musical offerings from Scotland these days are uncommonly generous in terms of their outstanding quality and enormous diversity. The Silent Sky, by eclectic guitarist/composer Neil Warden and virtuoso pianist/composer Stuart Mitchell, exemplifies the current pattern of free expression married to excellence as standard. Moreover, the album can be bought as a download for at a mere £6.32, and a bargain that seems almost philanthropic.
The eight absorbing instrumentals on The Silent Sky come tagged as “ambient, chilled” by iTunes but “sophisticated, cultured, super-cooled fusion” might be more accurate, and it’s easily worth twice the asking price. The Silent Sky is definitely relaxed and relaxing, but it comes thick with layers of melodic suggestion and mood-inducing changes of rhythm, pace and intensity.
The title track is a highly approachable essay on the quiet power of the elements, and Mitchell’s supremely elegant piano is both reverential and respectful of the glowering heavens. His wonderfully rippling lines seem to evoke images of scudding altostratus, while Warden on guitar paints a contrasting picture of gentle cumulus rising above thermals of synthesized sound.
You could be excused for expecting more of the same where ideas about nature, harmony and spiritual peace are the principal themes. However, listeners aren’t being presented with a comfort zone just because the overall conversation is reasoned and articulate. Alhambra is every bit as cool and majestic as the subject of its title, and as Spanish as Warden’s phrases on guitar. It reinforces a more opaque theme of elevation and the suggestion that the music aspires to a heightened experience.
Sequoia is a lengthy consideration of a tall tree and just as quietly dignified. There are echoes of Native American song and Lost-Highway-Americana rising over this piece of big sky country, but it’s also music with a strong rhythmic pulse. You’re not immediately aware of it because it develops quietly, almost imperceptibly, into something quite thunderous as it reaches its conclusion.
In fact, it’s so easy to get immersed in the suggestive environment created by synthesizers that, on first listening, you might miss the subtle treatment of rhythm present throughout The Silent Sky. One of the strongest tracks on the album is Shakti, with a haunting female vocal that spirals above a hypnotic trance-dance. It sounds like an offering of earnest praise to a higher power, imbued with a slightly unsettling sense of pressing urgency.
Stuart Mitchell, is I suspect, more of a pianist than a lepidopterist, but the rising fluttering notes of Transformation to Butterfly beautifully describe wonderment at the cycles of life. He is once again sublime and succinct when it comes to musical curiosity on The Road Less Travelled, a truly beautiful song that gains everything from venturing along paths that others often overlook.
Neil Warden is one of those guitar players who plucks really clean notes from an instrument that, in my opinion, often gets pushed into places it really doesn’t want to go. His melodic intuition is demonstrated to best effect on Lulo and Time, and his versatility is there for all to hear on Sequoia.
Warden and Mitchell are supported by a number of stellar guests on this outing, including John Burgess (flute), Dave Heath (flute) and Colin Steele (trumpet). Heath in particular takes flight on deceptively powerful music that benefits from compact, even contained arrangements.
The Silent Sky is such a personal pleasure that it’s almost worth forking out for new headphones with the money you’ve saved buying music on the cheap. It’s also a reminder of the healing properties of empathetic music designed to soothe our world-weary souls. Perhaps that’s why lovely music seems like a gift no matter how much you paid for it.
Michael S. Clark
28 April 2015
The Road Less Travelled is featured nightly on The Jazz Lights Playlist 21.30 – 23.00