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Nest: "Retold"

img  Tobias

The history of music is littered with examples of why an artist should never seek to reclaim the magic of the past: Withering crooners trying to cool suave on stage. Accomplished composer writing mortifying follow-ups or re-recordings of popular favourites. Bands getting together again after forty years of feuding, bickering and not talking to each other. Despite evidence against the contrary, however, Huw Roberts and Otto Totland knew exactly they could always tie in with the very first day they started writing material together and which would eventually lead up to the „Nest EP“. At over 20.000 downloads, that release would quickly turn into the figurehead of Robert's Serein-imprint and a small-scale classic. It proved that the quite inappropriately titled neo-classical movement had a lot more on offer than saccharine-sweet romantic pastiches and opera-style female singers screaming their lungs out over metal riffs. And it effectively demonstrated that, if taken in the right way, there was a huge potential for this project to extend its reach beyond the confines of the netlabel scene.

So if Totland and Roberts are returning to the fore two years after their remarkable debut, it is not just as yet another act moving from a galaxy of digital downloads to the physical world. They are also presenting themselves as spearheads of a reborn Serein, which is making its second coming as a platform with a wider outreach and even more ambitious plans. Seen from this perspective, the idea to connect the outfit's past with its present through this album must be seen as a particularly smart move: While the first half of „Retold“ consists of the six tracks of the „Nest EP“ (one of them in a different version), the second chapter is made up of five entirely new tracks written in 2009 as an immediate continuation of the original narrative.

In order to make the transition between these sections as smooth and unobtrusive as possible, Donal Whelan was asked to provide his mastering expertise and it has resulted in a transparent and liquid sound as well as a well-balanced production from the beginning until the end. As Roberts has remarked, the project's studio techniques have changed considerably since they first met and the fact that none of this is becoming obtrusively apparent in the overall architecture of the album is testimony to the minute attention awarded to the acoustic properties.

Even the opening sextet of tracks is therefore shining a new light, even if one is already familiar with the music. Re-listening to this with a bit of hindsight, it is intriguing to see how Nest have withstood the temptation of becoming overly reverential to any particular composer or all too tangled up in genre-dogmatics. Sure, you can detect discreet allusions to Satie on the brittle lyricism of these tracks and memories of Chopin are undeniably echoing through the empty hallways of some more subdued moments. It is just as easy to see the influence of the American minimalists in the warm pulsation of the motives and their subtle, almost imperceptible variations – even though things are moving in slow-motion compared to the neural fusillade of Reich and Glass. But despite the validity of these comparisons, the artists have held their own, feeling inspired by tje idea of classical music rather than any concrete schools, by „the very wide dynamic range as well as the tonality and timbre of a number of orchestral instruments“, as Roberts put it.

Whatever they do, however, a Piano is always by their side. All tracks, even the more atmospheric and Ambient-oriented works, are guided by sensitively evolving poetic patterns on its 88 keys, by its sound and its natural resonance. Especially on the earliest of these compositions, it is frequently mirrored and contrasted with electronic instruments, which mysteriously alienate its original colours into darker or more garish textures respectively. Because Roberts and Totland are Pianists by trade (Totland self-taught), they are capable of adding an organic touch to their sequences, which a lot of their colleagues are struggling with. Quite often, a slight irregularity will creep into the metrum, the emittance of a single note turning the rhythmic flow upside down, breaking it down, speeding it up or making it stop dead in its tracks. This element of a very immediate and natural interaction between the various layers is also creating the sensation of true ensemble music, created by two performers in the very same room.

This allusion, at least partially, moves to the background in the second half of the work. Even though the album's title might seem to indicate Nest were merely approaching the same concepts from a different angle, there is a clear split between their earlier and more recent material. More precisely, the new pieces are more textural, dense and cinematic, leaving notably less breathing space between the notes.  On „The Helwick“, the Piano is relegated to the role of rhythmic support, as boisterous drones and Flute-tunes move to the fore and on closer „Amroth“ it has all but disappeared completely, making way for dreamy pads and delicately scraping field recordings. „Far from Land“, on the other hand, turns into a natural acme of the full-length as a whole. Over an oscillating bass-tonic, Violins tentatively intone a two-note theme, which is gradually expanded into a more expressive, sensual shape. From out of this meditative state, what appears to be a Choir takes over, seemingly ready to take the track to majestic heights, but instead peacefully dying down into a ghostly, music-box-like coda.

It is a crucial trademark of the album that it invites the listener to use  his imagination and considers finding the right metaphors a more effective technique than spelling things out in full: Attention to details and the allure of subtlety are more important here than the thrill of being overwhelmed. The impression that Nest are above all about harmony and creating a mere comfort zone is certainly mistaken: Anyone keen on using this as yet another pleasant classical wallpaper will quickly be irritated by the plethora of tiny thorns and spikes that Roberts and Totland have skilfully implanted into their music.

The same goes for the question of whether the band have managed to pick up the thread where they left it in 2007 and offered a plausible untying of the knot. „Retold“ shines a new light on the older pieces and creates an unexpected sense of coherency and purpose to them. Rightly because they simply continued writing as though no time had passed at all, Totland and Roberts have not only managed to avoid disgracing themselves – but have actually managed to increase the magic of the past.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Serein Records

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