2019 :: ALBUM OF THE YEAR
From the electronica-meets-live-jazz exploration of 1999’s “Motion” through 2002’s authoritative nu-jazz milestone “Every Day” to the influential emotional landscapes of “Ma Fleur,” Cinematic orchestra have made a career of interpretation and definition. Band founders Jason Swinscoe and Dominic Smith are back after a lengthy 12 year hiatus and they’ve done it again. Picking up where “Ma Fleur” left off, “To Believe” is a neo-classical statement that again pushes boundaries and redefines a sound.
There are some new faces on “To Believe” but they fit beautifully. The album’s opener and title track brings first time co-creator Moses Sumney to the mic for a lilting, otherworldly vocal that is a perfect accompaniment for the hauntingly spare arrangement pushing him forward. So too, the brilliant creation with neo-soul songstress Tawiah, “Wait For Now / Leave The World.”
They’ve reunited with many of the collaborators from their past, ensuring a strong sense of continuity and “sound.” The album’s second track revisits the chill-inducing partnership with rapper Roots Manuva that created such a memorable moment in 2002 with “All Things to All Men.” Manuva is back for “A Caged Bird / Imitations of Life” and the result is stunning. The urgency returns, but this new track brings a fresh sense of melody and maturity.
Also returning is Grey Reverend, who’s contribution on “Zero One / This Fantasy” gives us an album highlight and a glimpse of what a possible future might have been for postmodern giants like Radiohead or Spiritualized had they been driven by the jazz in their record collections a bit more directly.
The album’s instrumentals offer some of “To Believe’s” most stirring and emotive moments. “Lessons” is more uptempo than much of Cinematic Orchestra’s work and the departure is a driving, compelling minimalist masterpiece that again Radiohead would be proud of. The stately “The Workers of Art” is a triumph as well, swelling to new romantic heights. The percussion on these tracks (the whole release, really) is a revelation. I had the opportunity to see many of these songs played live on the tour for the album and Luke Flowers’ drumming was nothing short of a masterclass in jazz beats.
The album closes with the return of Heidi Vogel for the album’s crown jewel — a nearly 12 minute opus entitled “A Promise.” Gradual and lightly uplifting, the song’s beginning showcases Vogel’s soaring, soulful voice perfectly as she intones evocative phrases over ambience. When that ambience begins to give way to a more driving melody about 4 minutes in, the listener is filled with expectation — the calm before the storm. The thunder of that storm begins to lightly rumble about half way through the track as Flowers’ syncopated drums march in. By the time he hits full stride, erupting into a punching flurry of beats, we are totally ready and completely ensconced in the spell. The release is one of the most satisfying musical moments of 2019.
I know Cinematic Orchestra has its detractors and dismissers. I challenge them to don a pair of good headphones and press play on “To Believe.” This spell is real.