Once in a while, you encounter a musician who requires complete attention. One who weaves such skilful musical soundscapes, decorated by such thoughtful, elegant lyrics, that you simply must engage. One who combines jazz, new age and dream pop effortlessly, and in the best of taste, so that you feel it’s both comfortably familiar but trance-like and surreal, too.
Not presented as a suite of songs, although they seem to form one, Oliver Downes’s At The End hints at a symphonic structure. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that the Blue Mountains composer is classically trained. In At The End, classical meets jazz in four perfect storms of melody and timing. This is a beautifully crafted series of compositions in which highly sophisticated instrumentation, arrangement and recording values directly address the state of the natural world.
On such a journey of adventurous musical excursion, Downes’s unique voice becomes an essential tool. In fact, the voice mix is one of the best things about this EP. It’s low enough to become no more than an essential instrument but still perfectly audible. Superbly recorded, multi-tracked and mixed, it’s a voice that can be comforting and slightly menacing at the same time. Placed within hypnotic musical textures, the atmosphere this voice mix creates is always surreal, and sometimes celestial. Downes is accompanied on this project by like-minded musicians of the highest calibre, to whom he gives much creative freedom. They include Eden Ottingnon (bass) of The Crusty Suitcase Band; Dan Kennedy (drums), more often found working the sticks with Mr Ott; and Kieran Ryan-Colton (electric guitar) of the world-jazz quintet Takadimi.
The effect on the senses goes well beyond interesting. It’s spellbinding. The music has a delicacy which in the hands of a lesser composer might have become indulgent. Downes ensures, though, that his collection never risks pretention. The songs introduce crisply, build and soar, and resolve with timely elegance. The musicianship and arrangements are shown at their best by the studio engineering of Brian Campeau and the mixing of Puzzle Factory Studio’s Dax Liniere. Liniere’s encyclopaedic knowledge of reverberation is particularly evident.
A hint of East Asia sets up the unashamedly sparkling production sound of Ship In A Bottle, and the statement of intent is clear. This is music to cross boundaries by. The voice, at first whimsical, becomes suddenly haunting and even ominous. “Follow the water through a channel to the stars, ‘cause there’s no crossing back over the bar…” . Baroque meets China Crisis, Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass. A touch fanciful? Perhaps, but you’ll see what I mean, I think.
Blue Skies is perhaps the most impressionistic among a portfolio of songs that are intentionally open to interpretation. It may initially leave you mildly unsettled, unable to quite see the full picture. Don’t worry if you don’t find answers. The questions are the thing. With lyrics shadowing the Elizabeth Harrower novel The Watchtower, this is bold composition and the adventurous melody works because of its precise craftsmanship. The hypnotic rhythm and soaring final note emphasise the clean conclusion to another well-constructed piece. Perfect length, tasteful performance, nice ending. Easy.
All this, and a lyricist too. The phrase Keep Calm, Carry On began as a morale boosting World War 2 slogan in the London blitz, found new life as a social media brand, and now Downes uses it with ironic effect against a backdrop of implied disaster. Described elsewhere as ‘musings’, Downes’s writing certainly enquires; the description is not at all unfair, but it’s true only up to a point. “…running in circles, pending disaster, falling into the net … an infinite line, in a definite space, each repercussion is spreading in ripples, in every direction, like intricate lace…” . It is carefully constructed poetry, whose imagery is the more powerful because of its clean austerity. These are lyrics of colour and maturity, perfectly complemented by Felicity Clark’s shakuhachi flute.
At the End opens with a wonderful instrumental introduction, fortified by a troubled (and recurring) background vocal vaguely reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream. It blends into a haunting voice that could be beaming in from space. A Tolkien-like musical fantasy comes to life, full of melodies and ethereal banks of voices although the composition itself is devoid of human elements, concerned exclusively with the natural world and asking whether, in fact, it needs us at all.
In At The End, Oliver Downes has constructed a masterly musical ‘other world’. Certainly his style borrows (OMD, Eno and Weather Report come to mind); but in every way it is entirely original. When beautiful music, superbly recorded, unpretentious but still exceptional, makes you think deeply, a composer has created something rather special.
5 stars, wholly recommended, available at www.oliverdownes.com
Former Program Manager, Radio Blue Mountains
January 12, 2015