Review Summary: The view from space was cool, but have you actually seen the earth?
Let me just say that I’m glad I only started listening to Neat Beats last year, mostly because I’m not so sure I could’ve handled a four year gap between Alvin Fenner’s releases, especially considering how promising of an album Cosmic Surgery was.
In 2011, Fenner’s debut LP showed us that he’s got more than enough subtle (yet effective) tricks up his sleeve to keep pace with the present musical landscape, all without letting his sound be compromised by trends or tropes. Having said that, Cosmic Surgery was so unique, thoughtful, and deliberate that this was never a concern anyone had with the direction of Fenner’s music. It was a highly inspired work, and a strong showcase of Fenner’s ability to creatively weave together instrumental elements characteristic of older music -- whether it be old-school hip-hop beats or quaint stringed elements -- to make it sound entirely new.
The production on Sleep Cycles feels just a little bit warmer than what we saw on Cosmic Surgery. The edges are more rounded, the colors are more complimentary, and the album’s aura feels far more clear and consistent throughout as a result. The looped instrumental samples that anchor each track, such as the flute on “D-Wave Suite,” are sometimes deliberately slowed-down and chopped up to induce a sweeping and immediate change in mood, which differs from the straightforward means to that same end of mood-shifting seen on tracks like “This Machine Destroys Everything” from Cosmic Surgery. The instrumental palette on Sleep Cycles stays true to the precedent set by Cosmic Surgery, and the addition of more diversified percussive elements in tracks like “More About Rhododendron” do a lot to enhance the ensconcingly eclectic vibe on this LP.
Samples of seagulls in “Seagull Dreams,” the sound of two guys tentatively talking in a studio at the beginning of “Six Hours,” as well as a female voice’s hypnotic reassurance of the “physical and psychological benefits of meditation” in a sample on “Rhododendron,” are a few of the more noteworthy details on this album that evoke some wonderfully vivid imagery, and make an effort to bring it closer to earth than its predecessor. Which serves it well, because although Cosmic Surgery did very well in space for the most part, there were stretches of the album where ill-suited use of heavily pixelated sounds fumbled its well-established sense of instrumental continuity and theming.
From a compositional standpoint, Neat Beats has made some killer progress on Sleep Cycles. Often times, the pianos, strings; just the instrumentals in general sound so gorgeous that the tracks don’t need to be propped up by a beat. The same could easily be said about Cosmic Surgery, but on Sleep Cycles, Fenner seems to be aware of this, and that’s the important part. Whenever the beat is dropped on top of a beautiful piano, like on “In the Air,” it feels more like the icing on the cake rather than a necessary ingredient, which marks a pleasingly impressive development of confidence in compositional technique from Fenner. This is especially prevalent in the tracks leading up to the album’s closer, “The Destroyer of Worlds,” which brilliantly juxtaposes the famous and unsettling words of J. Robert Oppenheimer against a forseeably tranquil instrumental. By this point, the sound of this closer would almost come off as an attempt to invoke a thoughtlessly cliché sense of closure if it weren’t for the use of the sample. The album concludes with a decidedly open end -- the sound cuts out in the middle of a bar, as if to suggest the foreboding sample is a threat to the peaceful world that Fenner has depicted on Sleep Cycles. It’s a wink to listeners to get them to wonder what comes next, and it works.
The way I see it, this is Fenner’s way of showing us he’s far too wise to be giving us played-out sounds and vibes by the time Sleep Cycles ends. Just like we saw before on Cosmic Surgery, Fenner’s showing all the signs of an artist with an admirably heightened presence-of-mind, an invaluable asset to have as a creator. Sleep Cycles signals a veritable growth in Fenner’s already high sense of agency about his music, and he’s left me excited to see how this positive trend will manifest within whatever world he creates, and however he decides to depict it, in his next release.