Objectivity be damned, it just isn’t fair for somebody to be this damn good.
But allow me to try.
Jazz-influenced pianist and chiptune musician Samuel Ascher-Weiss, better known as Shnabubula, has always done excellent work with layers. Free Play, the first of four (yeah, four) albums he released in 2012, took energetic, dramatic piano improvisations and built meticulously crafted ensemble pieces on top of them, effortlessly bridging his raw, personal playing with explosive dynamic power. Fans of that album will likely be taken aback at first by Fading Light, his first purely acoustic work: the only instrument to be found here is the piano. Considering the quality of this work, however, they certainly won’t be disappointed.
In the words of Ascher-Weiss, this album represents a difficult period of his life in which he handled the pressure by recording improvisational pieces. The emotional power, as a result, is the most intense he has ever been, the sparseness of the instrumentation allowing the veteran pianist to be as passionate as he wants without fear of overpowering the other layers of the song. That isn’t to say that the album loses any of its dramatic heft, though, as his playing is truly astounding, delicate and subtle at one moment—then crushing and forceful in the next. Likewise, the mood of the album swings wildly from euphoria to despair and everything in between: the solemn “Drifting Gently” is followed immediately by the innocent, bright “Time For A Picnic”, but for whatever reason, the pieces all just fit together.
Standout piece “Turning Point” encapsulates the entire emotional spectrum of this work perfectly; the glassy, fragile melodies that carry the first half of the track are soon injected with a jolt of energy that lifts them into a lighter key and allows them to soar over the second half…and before things get too light, we get that melody from the beginning again, the one that sounds like it’s one bump away from shattering, and the notes gradually get softer and softer. As much as the listener might like to escape, Ascher-Weiss realizes that that awakening and catharsis are always but temporary, and this truth characterizes the direction of his wayward playing—and the emotional subtext they carry.
Sometimes the album’s volatile shifts border on capricious, but they lend the entire work an electric unpredictability that speaks both volumes about Ascher-Weiss’s struggles and his ability to channel that pain into beauty. He certainly has quite a bit of fun, too; “The Bewildered Swordsman” stabs and swoops as dramatically as any cut from Free Play, while “Kittens and the Moon” plays with the listener’s expectations, bleeding pathos and melodies of loneliness before gradually shifting from andante to allegro, casting aside its weighty melodies for more hopeful ones as it swoops upwards into the night sky.
What truly stuns about Shnabubula is how somebody who is so prolific can remain so potent a force. Some musicians spend years perfecting a work, fine-tuning it, thinking about its significance, what they want to say. Others are more productive, but what they have to say seldom transcends the cheapness of novelty as they rush their work. Samuel Ascher-Weiss falls into neither camp: for him, music is just life itself, constantly evolving and never finished, enlightenment never able to be grasped but only meant to be glimpsed for a fraction of a moment. And if all of his therapy sessions sound this good, we gotta stick around to listen.
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