As I edge ever closer to silence in the realm of music reviewing, consistently struggling to find things to say, it can be the most tenuous connections that draw me back to writing. Over 10 years ago, not long after settling in Melbourne, I saw The Sunwrae Ensemble supporting post-rock band This Is Your Captain Speaking, and wrote about the gig for Luna Kafé. Considering 'Sunwrae' isn't exactly the jackpot of Google search terms, it's no surprise that Rae Howell, former leader of The Sunwrae Ensemble, got in touch in the hope that I might be interested in reviewing her latest release. Howell has relocated to London, and recorded this album in the US, but she returns to Australia this month to support its release.
Invisible Wilderness is, dauntingly, a double album of solo keyboard compositions. The first disc is the more traditional presentation, a relatively 'pure' recording, performed on a Steinway concert grand, the Rolls Royce of pianos. The second disc introduces the delectable tones of the Fender Rhodes electric piano on a few tracks, such as the gorgeous 'Train In The Night' and the plaintive, jazzy 'Do You Mind'. And, in a similar vein to Nils Frahm's Felt, the recording often foregrounds the incidental piano noises that most engineers seek to minimise: the gentle thrum of the hammers on the strings; the creak of wood; the gentle squeak and clack of the instrument's pedals.
Considering this release comprises, for the most part, nearly two hours of solo piano, I'm surprised how seldom my interest wanes. (Admittedly, it is the kind of music that's easy to pop on in the background while reading or working.) The two tracks that appear on both discs in slightly different forms – the title track and 'The Owl & The Eagle' – predictably feature the album's most memorable melodies. The album's longest piece, 'Faraway Castle', is reminiscent of Yann Tiersen's wonderful soundtrack to Amelie. And 'Synapse', the brief but haunting closer to disc two, is a tantalising taste of potentially fruitful future directions.
'Synapse' contrasts markedly with 'Incognito', the first disc's second track, a cruelly early juncture at which my misgivings about this album first arose. Cloyingly saccharine, the piece wouldn't sound out of place in a sentimental movie soundtrack, and is especially conspicuous among the more restrained moods of the other pieces. Another misgiving about this release mostly concerns its length. Disc one stretches to nearly 70 minutes, which is a demanding duration to focus on nothing but solo piano. Disc two's 47 minutes feel less like an endurance test, mainly due to the variety in tone and the emergence of more engaging textures. (However, separating the divergent styles across the discs robs the listener of potentially interesting cross-fertilisation between the approaches.) A further, minor criticism is that, considering the sophistication and elegance of the music, the cover art is ill-fitting in its cartoonish simplicity.
I feel grateful to have been introduced to this ambitious release, one that is frustratingly broad, yet often disarmingly beautiful. Future listens will no doubt unearth greater depths.