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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Flin van Hemmen - Casting Spells & The Coves (Neither/Nor, 2019) ****½

By Nick Metzger

Cinematic is a word that’s been used to describe Dutch composer/drummer/pianist Flin van Hemmen’s music, and rightly so. His excellent debut album, 2016’s Drums of Days masterfully utilized post-production of composed and improvised material from his long time trio with guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Eivind Opsvik to vivid and dramatic effect. Field recordings, ambience, and poetry are woven in with the instrumental material, coalescing into a beautiful and gripping whole. On his ambitious new double album Casting Spells & The Coves the processes developed on his debut have been expanded and realized further, extending his initial melancholic approach into a phantasmagoria of tinted memories, melodies, and allusions which he has divided into two expressive suites of music that work as well separately as they do together. Neufeld and Opsvik again join van Flemmen in providing some of the raw materials that are sculpted into this dark and surreal vision, supplying anchor and form among drift and shapelessness, guiding the listener through flickering passages of the mirage.

The “Casting Spells” suite is comprised of melody interspersed with swells of ambience and field recordings which saturating the events in the hiss of tape and a kaleidoscope of familiar, yet dreamlike sounds. The playing is torpid and deliberately sparse, leaving plenty of room between the notes for these unexpected sounds to rise through the veil. Despondent piano chords dance with groaning bass and fingerpicked guitar lines. The sounds swirl and convalesce, sometimes appearing only briefly, sometimes looping and developing structures and interactions with other noises only to dissolve again into the ether. The suite concludes with a poem from Miriam Atkin read by the author in a despondent deadpan over the trio’s playing, snatches a child’s voice, background ambience, noisy peels of electronics, etc. It’s a perfect conclusion to the first half of the album as the content impeccably fits in with van Hemmen’s surreal treatments.

The second suite of pieces “The Coves” utilizes similar sounds and pacing, but within a completely different set of structures. The piece “Paradise Cove” contains some of the best playing by the trio, replete with Neufeld’s subtle vocalizations and I have to say that I’m a fan of the mix of instruments used on this recording, especially during these trio pieces. The suite proceeds into the realm of a fever dream, looped samples, washes of percussion, and pizzicato bass all swell to the fore and then disappear down a cavernous halls. A section of farfisa organ is laid atop the trio improvisation, panning across the stereo field; it’s subtle but effective and adds a brief tint of suspense or perhaps even anxiety. As the miasma re-envelops the listener, someone flicks a lighter, a bell tolls in the background, the din of a crowded room swells and fades leaving only impressions of the ongoing conversations as someone addresses the crowd.

I’ll admit that I didn’t initially have this album in my write-up queue, but sometimes an album demands that you write about it. The music affects you in such a way that you simply can’t deny the impulse, and for me this is such an album. I could listen to it on repeat all day long, and it doesn’t ever nag for your attention. Fittingly on the album’s Bandcamp page van Hemmen quotes Erik Satie, and while this music is drastically different than that of the Velvet Gentleman it shares the objective of giving you something beautiful and profound to listen to at your leisure. The gentle melodies and washes of atmosphere stick with you and offer an inviting escape from the linear and obtuse machinations of day-to-day reality. I’m really looking forward to whatever van Hemmen does next; he’s definitely got my attention.