With one exception, David Sheppard‘s work has all been part of a collaborative process, and it’s been going on a while. He’s worked with Peter Astor in Ellis Island Sound, and on multiple occasions with Keiron Phelan – as an eponymous duo, as well as Smile Down Upon Us and State River Widening, whose Early Music LP remains one of my all-time favourites. It’s his other work that has the bigger audience though: on his own, Sheppard has tended to stick to the might of the pen, contributing reviews to a variety of magazines and, perhaps his most high profile work, On Some Faraway Beach, a biography of Brian Eno, is recommended for anyone with a passing interest in the former Roxy Music synth-player. It’s still preferable to view Sheppard as a musician who writes, though; it’s currently one book against over 15 albums.
It is perhaps self-effacement that when David Sheppard releases his first solo album he embellishes his moniker with his middle name – which is enough to make people pause and think ‘Is it the same guy…?’ Doubts soon fade upon playing the album: this has hallmarks of many of his other projects, making use of a lot of percussion instruments and propelling the rhythms along with his trusty acoustic guitar. If there’s a notable difference from his work with, for example Phelan, it’s that the compositions are less lushly melodic, with Sheppard focusing on brief patterns of notes looped and layered, rather than tunes to hum along to. There are a lot of African-inspired rhythms here, with layers of marimba pulsing along to mesmerising effect, leaving little space for a melodic instrument to find its space. The two part title track dials the sound density down a touch but even then Sheppard can’t resist a propulsive cymbal pattern midway through part one.
The focus on short rhythmic patterns is, it turns out, an inspired choice for Sheppard to take, and the thoughtful arrangements of his tracks – the subtle introduction of a stringed instrument here, the late arrival of a saxophone there – mean that repeated listening is mandatory so the listener really gets a hold on where each piece is going. Sheppard has shared some of his inspirations for the album and their combination, from the likes of guitar-centric composers Fred Frith and Glenn Branca through to the delicate piano of Hauschka, are not always obvious but each makes a small contribution to the sound of Vertical Land (no room for Steve Reich though, who seems to be one of the key unspoken influences here). It’s an album that gradually buries itself into one’s consciousness; less immediate than many of Sheppard’s collaborations, it has a tendency to bury lots of little hooks in the mind, like a benevolent, tuneful, parasite. (Jeremy Bye)