Percussionist and producer Ben Sloan’s decade plus as collaborator and contributor, drumming with the likes of Moses Sumney, Beth Orton, WHY? and The National, testifies that here we have a musician with an exceptional range, pedigree and rhythmic sixth sense. Still that’s not the whole picture. March ’23 saw him step out confidently from the back-line with a solo debut album ’muted colors’, a slice of singular electronica which oozed perfection. Deeply personal but emotionally varied, intriguingly experimental but never obscure, genre fluid but always coherent, it rightly pulled in the plaudits. Spun from audio-memoirs of sessions, live recordings, jams, field recording and voice messages, Sloan wove together tunes with an alt-pop shimmer suspended in an inventive percussive web.
Now comes a timely epilogue to the album in the shape of an EP ‘muted colors live’, out via NY artist allies New Amsterdam Records, and in its own compact way it’s a stunner. So much more than an afterthought or a ragbag of out-takes, here we have an addendum that stands on its own and speaks for itself. The inspiration was Sloan’s notion to move away from the lone decision-making of his solo debut, ‘open things up to a full ensemble’ and re-explore three of the original tracks with a be-spoke collective recorded live. Joining him for this re-imagining are a host of buddies from his Cincinnati base and beyond: Brooklynn Rae, Brianna Kelly and Michael-Andrew Spalding vocalising; Darian Donovan Thomas providing violin and electronics; Mike Haldeman on electric guitar plus more; and Stephen Patota with the acoustic, bass and synth contribution.
It’s an impressive group, each bringing what Sloan believes is ‘a new dimension to the music’. That communal energy is heard from the EP’s kick off on the momentous Philistine. From pensive electronic flutters to Steve Patota’s purposeful guitar picking, through the widescreen Celtic sweep of Donovan Thomas’s violin to the searching trio of jazz agile voices, this is a tune that scales up naturally. As the peak of drum tumbling post rock subsides to a dreamy calm, there’s no doubt that this version has re-ignited the original song with probing new perspectives.
That same essential reframing can be found on Too Much Internet, a song which in its first album iteration featured the frenetic scat rap of Serengeti and Josiah Wolf of WHY? On ‘muted colors live’ the band whip the tune to rhyme-less places but retain the same intensity, driven by skittering electronics and Sloan’s rapid volley of broken beats. There are ethereal violin calls plus swathes of orchestral synths which combine for some Basinski meets Battles moments as Too Much Internet prepares to implode. When the end comes it surprises. There’s no sudden decay here, just a controlled descent into a sombre post classical cavern where Patota’s acoustic and Haldeman’s clarinet curl together wearily alongside Sloan’s eerie tympanic commentary.
Relief and resolution does come with the EP’s closing track, the emotional, reflective 1e A. The song sees Brooklynn Rae’s expressive vocal in the spotlight for a gorgeous nu-soul ballad, penned by Sloan with indie songsmith Madeline Kenney. It’s a voice that’s tinged with hope alongside yearning, matching the orchestral flourish of this latest arrangement and maybe searching for different sentiments than the original version. As the final bars of ‘muted colours live‘ play out, all clipped guitars and plucked strings, it’s an ending with a ring of contentment.
Perhaps such moments sum up the added dimensions that Ben Sloan was looking for when playing these songs live with the band for this session. Whereas the original ‘muted colours‘ album was drawn around Sloan’s own feelings and snippets of experience, here the three songs are saying something else. This timely recording also marked a final chance to play with these friends on his goodbye to Cincinatti before a move west to Denver and it’s that mutual farewell that gives the EP an added poignancy.
That emotional fabric is also preserved exquisitely in Briz Young’s crisply natural film of the band performing the tracks which partners the music’s release. It’s a visual document that emphasises the personal connection and the power of people who are close sharing music together. So whatever form you choose to take in ‘muted colors live’, you won’t be under-whelmed. You’ll quickly find yourself getting attached to this small honest gem.
Get your copy of ‘muted colors live’ by Ben Sloan direct from New Amsterdam Records HERE
Watch Briz Young’s film of the band playing ‘muted colors live’ HERE