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Leon Vynehall - Nothing Is Still Music Album Reviews

Leon Vynehall - Nothing Is Still Music Album Reviews
After two albums of jazzy, humid club cuts, the British producer moves beyond the dancefloor with a stunning concept record about his grandparents that incorporates ambient and modern classical music.

Every time Leon Vynehall releases new music, you’re guaranteed a fundamental level of coherence. The British producer is a quiet, cerebral guy, and his long-form statements communicate rich themes and a solid sense of structure even though they’re largely wordless. His 2014 breakthrough, Music for the Uninvited, explored house music’s queer history and Vynehall’s own childhood memories, like his mom’s handmade mixtapes and N64 games. Sultry follow-up Rojus, from 2016, used ornithological samples to trace the arc of a single night out dancing.

On Nothing Is Still, his first studio album for venerable UK label Ninja Tune, Vynehall mines a piece of family lore: his grandparents’ emigration from England to New York City more than 50 years ago. But instead of using the story to frame another collection of jazzy, humid club cuts, Vynehall changes course. More deliberate and expansive than any of his other releases, the album moves beyond the dancefloor by incorporating traces of ambient and modern classical music.

Nothing Is Still isn’t a radical reinvention—it relies on the same sumptuous palette Music for the Uninvited and Rojus used—but it does deconstruct Vynehall’s established sound. The parts that make up lengthy bangers from earlier in his career, like “It’s Just (House of Dupree)” and “Blush,” are distributed across multiple songs, forcing you to focus on individual elements: the breathy sax drifting through “Movements (Chapter III),” the lusty grunts peppering the woozy “Drinking It in Again (Chapter IV),” the disorienting throb of “English Oak (Chapter VII).” Although it’s less engaging on a track-to-track basis, this approach yields an album that works through a much wider spectrum of emotions. Rojus was supposed to soundtrack an evening from start to finish, but it ended up hanging in place like a thick fog; Nothing Is Still swells and recedes. At its most intense—like the menacing second half of centerpiece “Trouble - Parts I, II, & III (Chapter V)”—the record can hit you like a punch to the back of the head.

That trade-off between moment-to-moment scintillation and holistic satisfaction is the crux of Nothing Is Still. It’s designed to reward a degree of investment that goes beyond the passive listening experiences that define the streaming era. Vynehall described Rojus as “functional club music,” a phrase that gets at that record’s strengths: Each of its tracks can be isolated and embedded within a marathon DJ set. It’s hard to come up with a similar phrase that cuts to the core of Nothing Is Still—a “multimedia narrative experience,” maybe. (The album is being released alongside a series of short films and a novella co-written by Vynehall.) That’s a much less evocative set of descriptors, and its hollowness reflects this album’s higher degree of conceptual complexity.

The implicit connections between Vynehall’s compositions and his grandparents’ move to America are what make Nothing Is Still sparkle. The graceful, swelling strings of opener “From the Sea/It Looms (Chapters I & II)” suggest the ebb and flow of a transatlantic voyage. Interludes “Birds on the Tarmac (Footnote III)” and “Julia (Footnote IV)” evoke the sonic clutter of a Manhattan morning—doors opening and closing, cash registers ringing, scraps of conversation—with layered, repeating passages reminiscent of Steve Reich. And after subjecting listeners to the anxious, noisy climaxes of “Trouble” and “English Oak,” Vynehall doles out a treat: the stunning “Ice Cream (Chapter VIII),” which starts as a play on the Field’s looping reveries and ends with birdsong layered over crashing waves of sound. The track feels like walking from the park down to the shore with a soft-serve cone, letting yourself be soothed by the rhythm of the tides.

I spent much of my time with Nothing Is Still thinking about a recent sonic statement of purpose by Vynehall’s contemporary, Sam Shepherd, another young British producer who imagined himself moving beyond the club sphere. 2015’s Elaenia, the first full album Shepherd released as Floating Points, found him making a sharp left turn from the house and techno of his early EPs into tranquil ambient jazz and piano impressionism. It felt like a slab of music meant to be digested as a whole; it wielded silence and texture instead of groove and melody.

Shepherd and Vynehall seem too progressive to believe that an association with dance music has somehow limited their prestige, but it’s also easy to imagine either of these bright, ambitious, insatiably curious artists wanting to do more than making people move. Like Elaenia, Nothing Is Still invites the listener recalibrate their expectations of the artist behind it. Vynehall is more than a producer with a great ear for texture and a nostalgic streak—he’s a storyteller, one who demands and merits our full attention.

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