Album review: Neil Cowley – ‘Hall Of Mirrors (Reflected)’: ambient piano is tripped further into leftfield on this excellent remixes set

The Breakdown

There's a real correspondence between the original Hall of Mirrors and this remixes set, for all the more beats orientation of this latter; that is, both records seem the ideal companion for a pair of AirPods and a solitary dérive around the city, taking random turns, exploring beyond the usual pattern of routes. Because it does have the atmospheres of a very metropolitan record, the city poised in those quieter hours; say, 7pm on a winter's evening, the one great human migration shifted back to the dormer burbs, the nightlife yet to fully start. I think you'd need them both; perhaps this record for the journey into town and the original for the route back. Neil, Mote: could we have this on wax, please?
MOTE 8.0

THE REMIX album is a really interesting thing, a gathering of the tribes in a meeting place that’s arisen from the sphere of dance music, in which like minds bring their aesthetics and splice it with another’s; a trading, the one overlaying, informing the other, creating a new offspring.

When it comes off in the first order it’s an absolutely great thing – I for one, always prick up my ears if Squarepusher gets his hands on anything, since the results are usually absurdly inventive and joyous.

We all have our favourites, our defining touchstones; gotta say, mine would have to be DJ Food’s riotously inventive and multi-hued Refried Food, from way back in the Nineties, which first showed me all the spirals of different directions a remixes set can go in. At its best, it also offers you whole new fractal arms of the world of music to go explore; stepping stones out into the worlds of new artists.

Of course for many a long year now it’s been de rigueur for a dance track to be offered up for reinterpretation, goes without comment, to the point where almost the radical thing you can do with a dancefloor-oriented track is not remix it.

And in the past year or so, the really interesting arena for the remix is where artists coming out of the leftfield, the more curious ends of the modern composition and jazz spectra, have been offering up their work for interpretation by producers and electronic svengalis to refashion.

Last year’s To Believe remixes from Cinematic Orchestra, which took their physical incarnation as two 12″s, saw one set kick further into the embrace of the dancefloor, while the other saw some radical ambient reworkings from harpist Mary Lattimore, Fennesz, and Kelly Moran.

Not so many weeks back, Blue Note released GoG Penguin’s GGP/RMX, which saw the forward-thinking Mancunian jazz trio be warmly embraced and rebuilt by the likes of the aforementioned Squarepusher (yay!), Cornelius, Machinedrum, Clark, Portico Quartet and 808 State. That’s a cracker and comes fully recommended (read our full review, here).

Meanwhile over at !K7 and 7K! composer Niklas Paschburg has been sending his work back out into the world through a fully electronic filter track by track, and you wouldn’t need to be a betting man to see these compiled in one place very soon.

And it’s another star of the world where contemporary jazz crosses into the avant-garde and classical tradition, Neil Cowley, who’s this week bringing a new perspective to his oeuvre by examination through the looking glass of others.

Having dissolved his previous combo, the Neil Cowley Trio, after a septet of albums from 2006 on, Neil had seemingly fallen out of love with the piano – or it him. He felt he had to maybe depart from the stool to find a new medium of expression.

He relocated to Berlin, began a collaboration with Erased Tapes man Ben Lukas Boysen; even produced a one-hour mix for Ninja Tune’s legendary Solid Steel radio show, which took in The Prisoner, Bowie and Can. There was such a curve of creativity into the electronic. The controls were set ever outwards.

But was this wasn’t quite how Neil felt. He yearned for the ivories. One day he found himself back at the piano in his adopted Berlin; no forethought, just playing. And then he pressed record. An album happened. Quickly. And the result is a return to that interrelationship and exploration of many decades, entitled Hall Of Mirrors.

It really is a lovely, lovely record, a cut way above the du jour trend to rinse meaning from a piano played plaintively in a room alone. Each piece is piano-led; and each has been post-processed differently, but with a light touch and absolute understanding; hence the name of the album. Recognisable, wholly; but other.

Neil observed with acute intelligence and a little self-deprecation at the time: “Hall Of Mirrors is my most personal album to date. How many times do we hear that line? Often it appears as a fall back when there seems like there’s nothing else to say. And yet, as with all hyperbole, there has to be a grain of truth in it somewhere.

“Sometimes my friend, sometimes my enemy; we are inextricably linked the piano and I. And for the time being we are getting along.”

It’s a record of which we said in review: “It’s a very European album – and by that yes, I do mean Britain too, look at the map; I also find it very much an album of being out and about in the city for the day, maybe entirely centred and alone, bringing the evocations and impressions of the day home with you as little memory photographs; if you had a reasonable degree of musical talent (present company, dear reader, mostly excused), this may be the way you chose to diarise that time spent.

“But all these conceptual asides fade away beneath the main thrust: it’s a truly bloody great record. Buy.” (You can read our full review of that and find out where to snag a copy, here).

This new set is fully intended as a companion piece and plays with a palette that takes in ambient, breakbeat, electro, house, jungle and techno.

Neil explains: Collaboration is a hugely important and liberating process for me. With Hall Of Mirrors being such a personal record, it was important I could bring some of my favourite peers into the room to rework the album. I’m so pleased with how each artist interpreted the music!”

Neil Cowley, photographed by Gray Lee Brame

This interpretative reflection on Hall Of Mirrors begins delightfully softly with the “Prayer”, in the original a heartbeat-slowing and graceful offering to the gods of music, which is spun out into near-beatless granularity and otherworldly shear by Ben Lukas Boysen, with whom Neil released 2019’s Beat Infinitum EP. Although the ghost of the original, hollowed to a skeleton, is just detectable in the lap and tide of the opening ambience, it’s only about halfway through a fully Kranky/Berlin-style glide that the original piano melody makes its grand entrance; and my, doesn’t it sound just great, suddenly warming and anchoring what was already an incredibly pretty sonic journey. A minute or more in the piano’s direct rays and the track gracefully begins to fragment and decay back to silence.

Leeds producer Louf moulds the jazzy and impressionistic staccato of “Berlin Nights”, filled with captured found sound, wheezing into a dusky and complex groove, electro chit-chattering away with complexity and a mournful melody; definitely one for taking a backstreet route across a city, away from the main drags, careering down cobbles and running against the grain of the arterial spider, at lighting up time. There’s a little of the yaw of early Autechre to this. Midway through it reels and slows as if climbing a wave, to re-emerge with a straighter four-to-the-floor offering a concession to the spirits of dance, and a siren-song, resonating hook.

Kilig‘s take on “Circulation” has a similarly dusky introspection, Neil’s piano a strong backbone of jazzy vamp and glimmer over rolling beats that never thrust the rhythm right up into your face; while the evocative, spectral “Souls Of The S Bahn” becomes a surging, polyrhythmic mantra in the hands of Buckinghamshire duo Jacana People, full of fuzzy heat and a tumbling break.

Chicago-born, London-based Kate Simko takes “Stand Amid The Roar” and isolates a Japanese atmosphere in the melody line, brings strong bass thrum and a microtonal waver, making of it a lovely slice of electronica retro-futurism, clacky breaks and bell tones. It pulls off the trick of being completely propulsive and also distractingly meditative all at once, quickly couching you deep inside itself, where that cyclical arpeggio has you at its beck and call.

“Just Above It All” thrills along on a rainfall of percussive pitter-patter and squelchy bass, a phrase of Neil’s piano lifted, stretched and hammered out like hot metal into an almost Cuban motif, the bongos and gentle shuffle, muted trumpet making it an ethereal Latino film score in the hands of Seb Wildblood; while Edinburgh resident Gary Caruth, who produces as Sad City, makes the seductive electronica fusing of the original into a pointillist, compulsive and skeletal groove, by turns ringing, itchy and ghostly.

South London electronica scientist Hector Plimmer sets up “Saudade” as a hallucinatory shimmer, injects it with sudden blasts of higher tones, sets it loose over a more wistful ambient scape and then rolls out the track like a river fog, whistling and flooding with gradual waves of electronic atmosphere, grand piano chords ringing through the sonic processing.

London cousins Mike Sharp and Joel Roberts, who trade as Otzeki, take the spectral dusk atmospheres of “Tramlines” and shatter it into a sparse, textural deep house, a nicely clicky kickdrum keeping the propulsion crisp but never over-insistent, distant tweakings and whirrings and mutterings making for a rather Germanic dancefloor gem, light of touch, Neil’s piano and other sounds snipped and collaged back in a completely new shape. A head-nodder you couldn’t fail to appreciate with plenty of beguiling micro-glitch for a satisfying headphones listen.

Self-styled Berlin musical storyteller The Allegorist brings his six years of deep immersion in beats science to bear on “Time Interrupted”, and his retake has a hallowed grandeur, a deep exhalation of organ and gleam that cleaves closest to Neil’s original in terms of pacing; it has that sunset wonder of Boards of Canada, and sees the metronome of Neil’s chords subsumed in a sweeping thrill of sound. It remains for Neil himself to reappear from behind the drapes and look deep into his own creation for a remaking of “I Choose The Mountain” which borders on deep house-anthemic, a clicky kickdrum transporting you effortlessly as minimal soundscape cycles past, guides you into plazas of grinning dancefloor euphoria that’s affecting and deft.

Actually, for a record that has 13 people involved in its direct sonic creation, Hall Of Mirrors – Reflected is incredibly cohesive in tone, which comes as a surprise, perhaps; Neil has evidently curated his remixers well. There’s a real correspondence between the original and this for all the more beats orientation of this latter; that is, both records seem the ideal companion for a pair of AirPods and a solitary dérive around the city, taking random turns, exploring beyond the usual pattern of routes. Because it does have the atmospheres of a very metropolitan record, the city poised in those quieter hours; say, 7pm on a winter’s evening, the one great human migration shifted back to the dormer burbs, the nightlife yet to fully start; they reflect each other’s image with a nuanced embracing of deeper electronica on …Reflected.

I think you’d need them both; perhaps this record for the journey into town and the original for the route back. Neil, Mote: could we have this on wax, please?

Neil Cowley’s Hall Of Mirrors – Reflected will be released digitally by Mote on July 30th, and is available to purchase now at his Bandcamp page.

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