Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Neil Cowley presents a retro-focused gaze on Battery Life

"Battery Life"

Release date: 24 March 2023
Neil Cowley - Battery Life cover
21 March 2023, 00:00 Written by Ray Honeybourne

The first solo album from jazz pianist Neil Cowley, 2021’s Hall of Mirrors, was a darkly beautiful, neo-classical-tinged Berlin-based record.

Incorporating electronica with great delicacy, with an appeal well beyond any jazz fraternity, it was deservedly acclaimed and represented the artist’s new fruitful relationship with the piano after a period of self-doubt.

This new release – evolving out of his engagement with diaries left by his late mother – explores memories, clear and blurred, in a time (the present) when a digital world allows hardly any composition, textual or image, to disappear completely. Opener “I Must Be Liked” considers a feature of the Instagram metaverse, introducing an album whose title seems to play on the ambiguity of electric power going to phones and tablets, as well as the artificiality, the unnaturalness, of aspects of contemporary existence. Fretful notes and deeper rhythmic pulses initially convey a worried psychological state before the music opens out to present a more optimistic (real or created) outlook. Yet, all the time, Cowley cleverly suggests a nagging uncertainty, and the staccato piano and electronic glitches affirm that, as in many a social media profile, the underlying impression is the real one.

Older synths and drum machines hark back to a time just before the world became a projected stage, and this mix of old, modern and postmodern works so well throughout the album. Small sonic details from, among other things, vintage pedals cut across the melodic lines in tracks such as “Breaka”, so that one can be both enveloped in the overall sound texture while simultaneously aware of a sense of fragmentation and breakdown.

It’s a difficult feat to manage successfully, but Cowley achieves it through careful attention to mixing (done in Berlin, though the recording was at Metropolis Studios in London) and production. The range of never-gratuitous effects complementing the sometimes minimalist piano lines is considerable, bringing to mind, at various points, Martin Hannett and Burial. The rumbling undercurrents in “Telegrams” are sinister but never overwhelm the melodic piano development, and it’s this intelligent balancing of new-old technology and pianistic propulsion that succeeds in making this an album for our fraught present and an embodiment of our Mark Fisher-inspired retro-focused gaze at lost days of futures past.

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