Album Review: Aaron Collier - "Neo"

by Dan Nightingale

The new Aaron Collier album is an “improvised piano+computer music captured live at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga.” In the spirit of the improv record, of which I am generally a fan, I'm improvising this review in a single listen to the album, which I've not started playing yet. Collier, perhaps better know as one half of Scientists of Sound or one quarter of the infamous Jimmy Swift Band, has always struck me as a gifted musician so I'm curious to hear what is played out here.

I start the first track and there's silence, then tapping, footsteps? No, it develops into a rhythm and then plodding piano comes in. Layers are added and it sounds almost like a show tune, I half expect over the top theatrical vocals to come in but I have a feeling it will be deeper than that. The contrasting rhythms give the impression of multiple musicians but Collier is known to have a massive bag of tricks to layer and multiply his sounds.

Jarring piano notes jump in and out and keep things nicely avant-garde. Looking at the song list, there's nothing under 4 minutes and two over 10 minutes in length, but it's hard to tell whether they're going to be fully separated ideas or if the music will flow smoothly from one piece to the next. All ready the first track is heavily exploring dynamics, dropping to a single high tone and then moving into a slow, melodramatic piece. There are moments when you can tell Collier is trying to develop the next idea or fiddling with a piece of gear to ready the next layer, but it flows very well and sounds almost rehearsed.



The grand piano sound is, well, grand – rich and harmonic and well captured. Descending scales remark on the improvised nature of the piece but it wraps up with more high twinkling that recalls the earlier bridge. I'm curious to hear the track flow – at this juncture it sounds unbroken. The notes indicate that the album was the best “unedited 60 minutes of music” from the live recording session.

More percussion which must be Collier banging on the piano with his left hand accompanies more high right handed dream music. The track again moves into upbeat show tune vamping. So far the only sound besides the percussive taps are the piano. Of course, the piano is widely regarded as a master instrument, capable of playing a huge range of music and conveying a wide range of emotion. It's hard to get sick of hearing piano over and over, unlike, say, a violin or a trumpet, but I am still waiting for the “electronic” nature of the album to come into play – I had hoped for Postal Service style indie piano electro, given Collier's other work, but perhaps that is too much to ask of a single musician improvising. Still, there's plenty of album left so hopefully Collier has some tricks left up his sleeve.

We're nearing the ¾ mark of the second track and it's moved into very foreboding territory. Collier is certainty a master of capturing every emotion with his music. The contrasting lowest and high notes on the piano create an atmosphere that moves into more upbeat vamping, and you can hear the low notes start to smear on a loop as they fade out. This time there's a clear fade between tracks and then silence before the next track bursts in with more dramatic piano and a move to the highest notes. The percussion sounds very large and thick. I am picturing an evil villain stroking his goatee to this theme. I can't help but think that song titles instead of numbers would have lead to some more varied imagery being associated with the songs. Vocal stabs come out of no where and then loops rewind to transition into another classical sounding theme.

Neo IV starts off with, obviously, more interesting and gripping piano, but I'm really starting to become desperate for the “computer music” promised in the album details. A simple lo fi beat or a filtered piano loop would be a great foundation to build more piano movements on. Halfway through the longest song on the album, I'm starting to lose hope. There is much dramatic low ending vamping with wonderful jazz scales running over top but one can only showcase virtuoso piano skills so many times before the listener starts wishing for a refreshed palate. The track loses volume and steam near the end and starts to repeat itself thematically.

The overwhelming feeling I get from this album is “soundtrack” - a black and white artsy movie about crying would be perfectly tempered by these recordings. Unfortunately with another 20 minutes or so of music ahead of me after about 35 minutes, I'm starting to get that “bored/proud parent in the audience of the school recital” face. Very pleased with the level of skill being displayed before me, but getting a little anxious to just get home and watch TV and drink a beer again. The very faintest levels of digital looping in the background are fun but don't give the reprise needed.

I hate to admit it but I've had to skip forward through a few songs. I have hope for the last piece – maybe a short, wild, out of left field coda? It starts off well enough with more dramatic foreboding and rising string/percussion loops. But I feel like I would have been more satisfied with, say, the sound of the piano being smashed at the end or ripping it open and smacking it's strings with pliers or shoes. The ending theme is very nice and overall the album showcases extreme talent and a fantastic recording job, as was expected. That being said, for the pianist of a band known for there wild improvisations I had hoped for a little more variety.

The album ends with silence, a little too politely. While it achieves technical perfection and incredible improvisational skills, it lacks attitude and stays a little too inside the box. It's no surprise that this album is nominated for best instrumental album at the 2011 ECMAs, and no doubt it will agree with the palates of connoisseurs of jazz and classical piano music. It's a remarkable feat and there's certainly no doubt in my mind about the quality of Collier's future musical productions, which I look forward to hearing.

You can get a taste of the album yourself at http://www.aaroncollier.ca/

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