My exhaustion has only grown with the first third of 2021. With vaccination appointments scheduled, live shows returning in the somewhat distant future, and easing restrictions in parts of the country that have done well with the decrease of positive COVID-19 cases (as opposed to those who are still struggling, and have still pulled back restrictions completely), things should be looking more optimistic than they have in the last year. Yet still, I struggle to roll out of bed everyday and proceed as I have for the nearly 21 years I have existed on this Earth. This could be attributed to many things, but the grim lens now tightly fixed over our lives continues to darken. More and more unarmed black individuals are killed by an inherently oppressive and racist institution that values those archaic and regressive ideals over their falsely publicized responsibility, while voting and healthcare rights and services are being ripped away from disenfranchised communities seemingly every day, as the richest people in the world control more wealth than over half the world’s population combined. I’m not the first to express these views, among too many others plaguing our nation and world, and I sure won’t be the last, but amidst the impending new normal, the sun’s gaze feels more gloomy with each passing sunrise. And I am scared.
I am scared for my generation, the one before me, and the one which follows mine. This fear is resonating around the world, and more people are waking up in a cold, disorienting sweat than ever before. “But Adam, you are a music reviewer, and certainly not qualified to be discussing such topics within your objective analysis of this album that you have yet to mention!” The critic and polemicist may be correct in some aspects of this statement, but I assure you, the talking points above have relevance in the analysis that will follow this introduction. Sure, I could have introduced this piece with a bit about how my knowledge of modern classical and progressive electronic is entirely absent, and leaves me completely unfit for this review, or I could have mentioned that I continue to listen to the highest rated music that releases this year, and that my choice of listening should be more thoroughly spread across the genres, but I can speak for anyone in that I absolutely prefer great music to good or bad examples. This is futile however, because these are not what I am thinking about moment after moment, nor are they the constant barrage of uncertainty and frustration that follow me routinely due to the factors listed above (among so many unfortunate others). They are also not reflective of what my mindset approaching this record was.
This is where I introduce Promises. With the combined minds of the relatively new UK IDM force Floating Points, spiritual jazz legend Pharaoh Sanders, and the obviously impressive London Symphony Orchestra, this is automatically one of the most intriguing releases of the year. While releasing a few weeks ago at the time of this write-up, I hadn’t even bothered to look at this record until the past few days, where I have been feeling particularly drained. This, as you will soon discover, was a huge mistake, but I am glad I heard this record when I did; I needed the raw, visceral experience that extremely well-crafted music can bring when your emotions are running high and your mental stability is slipping. Perhaps I will write about that at some point, as it is a very important and intriguing topic to me, but for now, merely understand that this is an extremely powerful project.
In advance, I apologize to the Spotify shufflers out there, as this is not the record for you. As classical pieces often are, this 46-minute odyssey is separated into movements, nine to be exact. Each takes a very simple theme, established in the first movement, and drives it in an incredibly varied number of directions, with each cut distorting, interpreting and experimenting more than the last. Promises must be listened to as intended, at least to properly convey what the three groups are attempting to pull off. I suppose this is just a theme with instrumental pieces, as I had similar comments towards my most recent review of the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. So, if strapping on heavy headphones, darkening your listening area, tuning out the rest of the world, and falling face-first into an incredibly dynamic listening experience for almost an hour doesn’t sound appealing, I reccomend you check out my Madison Beer review.
The first movement is inarguably the most important here, as it established the four-part chordal electronic phrase that is imbued within the rest of the piece. The subtlety and airiness of these, likely contributed to by Floating Points, is incredible, and never ceases to mystify throughout the several movements. Sanders‘ emotive saxophone enters soon after ample melodic establishment, and absolutely steals the show with its incredibly soothing and soulful timbre, seducing and stupefying throughout its appearance on the track. The two instrumental palates weave back and forth, and eventually converge together to create a stunningly beautiful duet, which would seem so unlikely, but incredibly resonates together at every step. As the movements continue, and Sam Shepherd and Sanders continue to play with one another, the orchestra begins to rear its alluring head. The string swells on “Movement 2” are so emotive, and turn the beauty previously established into a spacious, strange, somber, and haunting cacophony. To quickly give a shoutout to the production end of Promises, this record is perfect. Every instrument is wonderfully placed upon the blanket of the track, and the emphases on silence and near silent instrumentation is a massively impressive and undeniably captivating feature of the record.
Electronics replace the strings in the following short third movement, where our view has changed from a darkened moor to a lonely spaceship, as bleeps and bloops become the focus. Warbling synthesizers and bright, punchy tones become the centerpiece of the experience, with saxophone completely absent. Interestingly, these are soon replaced with very erratic and fish-like vocals. Yes, I meant to say fish-like. The first half of “Movement 4” is completely dominated by a baritone singing from the bottom of the ethereal river which we journey on. It jumps from percussive rhythms to more drawn-out tones and phrases, but they certainly stick out as another incredibly entrancing element of the record. Sanders‘ charming jazz solos serve as the basis for the coming movement, underplayed by an extremely well-crafted piano part that perfectly compliments the electronic chords we began with, still present nearly 13 minutes later. The saxophone explores some very avant-garde and free-improvisational techniques, often acting as the most abrasive element of the mix.
If you have read enough of my reviews, you will know that I love a good musical climax (or many, frankly), and how incredibly important dynamic variability is to a piece, especially those of long-form and conceptual varieties; “Movement 6” shows the first of these. Strings, sax and the electronics begin this track off, easing us into a false sense of security. This record is very ‘vibe-y’ for the first third, and while some real weird stuff is thrown in, it still serves its softness generally well. The dynamics first fully pick up in this movement, where the entire symphony swells. Horns mutely blare angelic calls, and strings weave together crushing melodies. With the electronic chords as a base, the composition extols the emotion of the pieces before it. This track becomes even more impressive, as the strings take over the foreground once again, to lead us on a roller-coaster-like journey. This unexpectedly drops into a bouncy, somewhat conventional fast-paced classical section near the end of the cut, which gives a lot of the less heard instruments shine through the symphony. This is promptly ripped away, however, and is replaced by a surge of monolithic chordal dissonance for nearly the last two minutes of the cut. It is a breathtaking moment on the record, and displays an extreme catharsis that the ensemble has been building to up until this point. It is our first real climax, and is absolutely unforgettable.
Again similar to my last review, I will be forgoing the latter parts of this record, for the best way to experience them is not through my intellectually-envious prose, but the music itself. This record seriously left me breathless a number of times, where my brain began to succumb to the pull of musical intensity and warp my senses with it. The emotions that Promises invokes are some I had never felt previously; those of ethereal intrigue, stirring enticement and brimming sorrow. Incredibly experimental, wonderfully composed, and immaculately performed, this record speaks where we cannot. It is liberating, evocative, and soothing. It tends the wounds of a caustic, crippling society than wants nothing more than to chew us up and spit us out. I might be being dramatic, but in a world where finding truth, joy, and justice is often a difficult prospect, it is the responsibility of catharsis to carry us on. There are usually a couple records a year that really accomplish this, providing such emotional highs that can be in many cases, life-altering. I can see Promises as this for some people, myself maybe included. This is an incredible record, and a wonderfully unique combination of sounds no one knew they needed. But this one hits just right at this point, and while it will certainly still be an amazing record five years down the road, now more than ever is the anger, anguish and apathy of the world prevalent today reflected and combatted within this piece.
Final Rating: No jokes, this is just incredible.
Favorite Tracks: –
FFO: Charles Mingus, Kraftwerk, pretty much any Philharmonic Orchestra
Promises is out now on all major steaming services, via Luaka Bop, Inc!