A lovely album from start to finish, Sun, Cloud is at times achingly beautiful, a reflection of its title and its launching point. Luke Howard is also the name of the meteorologist who classified the clouds; this composer shares his name while translating his skyward gaze to an orchestral score. This album bears witness with intelligence and grace, producing at times a sense of awe akin to that of discovery.
While many listeners may be hearing the artist for the first time, he’s been honing his skills since the turn of the century. In addition to playing piano on dozens of albums, Howard has worked in television, theatre and film, and assisted the likes of Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Valgeir Sigurðsson and Daníel Bjarnason on their own productions. And so it comes as no surprise that many former collaborators would return the favor by sharing their skills on his long-awaited debut. These include members of the Melbourne Symphony and Oslo Philharmonic, whose strings enrich the piano work without overwhelming it. The ear is drawn at first to the orchestral pieces, but on subsequent listens one realizes that they would seem less powerful without the tender balance of Howard’s solo works. “Portrait Gallery” is the finest of these, set in the center of the disc. From humble origins, it develops into a sweetly meditative and increasingly complex piece, toying with silence before filling it with pointillist notes. Although quiet, the track is strong enough to stop conversation in its tracks, as passers-by hush each other and strain to hear each note before it fades.
The first of the orchestral pieces to impress is the seven-minute “August”, whose primary four-chord theme gains emotional weight when balanced by a darker two-chord counter-theme. After these two weights have been established, the track begins to gather strength, expanding like a cumulus cloud at the edge of a storm front. The rain holds off for a while, finally falling in the fifth minute as a series of piano notes. As the track concludes, the two-note chord re-emerges, intimating that the danger has not yet passed. Yet the sweet “Slumber” follows next, with nary a note of disarray. It’s not until the stunning “Schlusshymne (Concluding Hymn) that the orchestra revisits such yearning undercurrents.
Those listening to the album on Bandcamp may believe that Sun, Cloud concludes with the pensive “Elegy”, which seems fitting; but two more tracks await those who make the purchase. “Incoming” is unlike anything that precedes it, recorded on a grand organ in Melbourne; the heavenly associations of the instrument are inextricably linked with the sun and cloud of the album’s title. “Family” draws the album to a close with Howard at the piano, lonely and alone, until the solace of friendship draws near. The clouds have lifted, the sun is shining, the world tilts gently on its axis. (Richard Allen)