Nils Frahm: All Melody

Scott Wallace
22nd Jan 2018

The line between pop music and so-called "serious" music gets blurrier all the time. When keyboard savant Nils Frahm's new album All Melody begins, it's with wordless voices that snake through a prismatic, twinkling composition, melting into the drone of the 9-minute "Sunson." But when a syncopated, pulsating bassline appears amidst the valley-like folds of that piece's melody, it's clear that Frahm has been listening to the radio.

German Frahm is extremely prolific, his work zig-zagging among his studio albums and work commissioned for soundtracks. All Melody comes after a relatively silent period for Frahm, and it feels like an excision of a lot of pent up material. As such, while it may have some exceedingly strong pieces (the cascading, tactile piano-centric "Forever Changeless" stands out among much longer pieces), it doesn't quite feel like a suite or a particularly cohesive collection.

The meandering "Human Range" is filled with voices and brass, but over seven minutes never really settles into a dynamic or engaging rhythm. Elsewhere, Frahm proves that he is capable of sustaining interest over great lengths, such as on the percolating title track where the sounds produced are just as important to the composition as the ancillary sounds of their creation - taps, clicks, and reverb whether real or artificial. That sense of place and physicality is perhaps Frahm's key strength as a composer, and does much to advance All Melody's adventurously accessible sound.

With Frahm's approach, rhythm is born from melody, rather than accompanying it. He finds ways to arrange sounds so that the gaps between them register as percussive, almost creating a kind of harmonious beat. This is most apparent on the sparkling, Philip Glass-like ripples of "Kaleidoscope," where shorter notes pierce through a veil of extended tones like pinpricks of light. 

It's actually when Frahm sticks to his bold and muscular regular sonic palette of pianos, organs and synthesizers, that the strongest results occur. The second half of the spacey odyssey "#2" finds him adding and subtracting layers from the swirling arpeggios of the composition, subtly tweaking the piece in texture while the steady thump of the track rolls on. 

Unfortunately, further pieces like "Momentum" (in a betrayal of its title) are ponderous and sodden and fail to expand on what Frahm has already created in the past. Juxtaposed against pieces like the beautiful, elegaic "Fundamental Values," the record’s missteps feel even more like a letdown.

There's no getting past the fact that this album is seventy-five minutes long, and it's hard to justify that length when an unfortunate amount of it feels disposable, or half-thought out. Nils Frahm's music can take you on jaw-dropping journeys, but All Melody, even if it is more direct than he's been in the past, feels too much like a series of false starts. 

All Melody is out on CD, vinyl, and digital formats on Friday January 26th.