Review Summary: Shabason continues to explore his family history on his stellar third album.
Joseph Shabason, Toronto ambient jazz musician/indie saxophone savant (most famously sitting in for Destroyer’s Kaputt
), has been using his solo career as a sort of genealogy project. 2018’s Anne
was a stunning concept album that dealt with his mother’s Parkinson’s diagnosis—snippets of interviews with his mother were sprinkled throughout the record, bolstered by music that perfectly reflected the themes of confusion, fear, acceptance, and dignity. It was an unflinching, and quietly harrowing album that handily conveyed the intense emotions behind the calm, hushed dialog samples. After a fruitful collaboration with Nicholas Krgovich and Chris Harris (last year’s excellent, isolation-focused Philadelphia
), his third solo record dives headfirst back into his own family’s history. Named after the community centre that embraced his grandparent’s dual-faith Islamic/Jewish marriage, The Fellowship
explores the tension and courage inherent in their unconventional (especially in the mid 20th century) romance, and its ensuing influence on his life.
Even without an audible word spoken, the record has an obvious narrative that unfolds over its eight tracks. It opens with the dewy keyboards and soft sax licks of “Life with My Grandparents”, a blank slate where the album’s primary musical elements dimly come to life. Shabason then careens sharply into dark, almost violent territory on “Escape From New York”, where erratic percussion and vibraphones, melodic dissonance, and an increasingly intense atmosphere details a panicked journey fraught with peril. Respite is found in “The Fellowship”, a quasi new-age track surrounded by chirping birds that becomes gradually lusher as saxophones, guitars, and pan flute melt together. The record is only fifteen minutes in at this point, but the emotional and musical ground covered is considerable, exhausting even.
In The Fellowship
’s middle stretch, Shabason analyzes his own religious beliefs over his childhood and adolescence. “0-13” is the most childlike and innocent song on the record, a lilting lullaby made up of chimes and soft synth pads; “13-15” is a churning mass of confusion with blaring drones, pining flutes, and lack of an obvious hook or melody; and “15-19” is the sombre comedown, a gently building track that becomes another showcase for Shabason’s phenomenal saxophone and horn arrangements. Again, his attention to sonic detail and storytelling is expertly applied during this section, wonderfully capturing a spiritual journey (seemingly from belief to vehement distaste, and finally to middling contentment) that many will to relate to.
The album lives up to its title as a deeply communal and collaborative project. Shabason’s double-tracked saxophone and keyboard work playing remain the crux of his solo work, while Thom Gill’s fingerpicked guitars, and Michael Davidson’s intense vibraphone playing are equally crucial. Pianos, drum loops, and bleary synthesizers swirl around in the mix, coming from any of the dozen collaborators, yet the record rarely feels overstuffed or convoluted; on tracks like the caustic “Comparative World Religions” or heart-pounding “Escape from New York”, however, the voluminous arrangements effectively make you feel like you’re being swept up in a cyclone of dissonant sounds. Indeed, the most hectic moments on the record are disarming and somewhat unapproachable, but The Fellowship
is a difficult and mercurial album in concept. Critically, it’s these harsh moments that make the sweetness of the softer songs feel incredibly deserved and fulfilling.
Similarly to Anne
, The Fellowship
succeeds largely because of its engaging, highly personal subject matter. Too often, ambient musicians toss out records that “aim to create a space for healing and peace”, or something equally banal; The Fellowship
, on the other hand, explores a real space that provided healing and peace to Shabason’s ostracized grandparents, and profoundly influenced his own beliefs and views. It’s that deep personal connection that makes The Fellowship
such a compelling and rewarding journey, through the darkness and light.