Two & One was one of my favourite 2014 releases, with Luke Howard largely eschewing the warm orchestration of Sun, Cloud to invite us on a more sombre, wholly captivating journey. Enticingly, the Melbourne-based pianist has moved onward further in his new release – Two Places incorporates aspects of both preceding LPs while also charting new sonic waters.
The record sets the tone early for continuing the theme of exploration with titles such as “Peripatetic” and “The Map Is Not The Territory”. Ironic, then, that second track “Longplay” provokes a smile a recognition, having been a standout piano piece from Two & One. Here Howard delivers a new, subtly more sedate performance and flourishes its crystalline notes with fluttering electronics, like moths caught in the piano’s radiance. Familiarity comes knocking again further on – the haunting “Atlases” starts with grandiose piano that effloresces into sweeping orchestration before withering into a wistful soliloquy on the ivories. The piece originally appeared in a quite different guise on a recent release by the Luke Howard Trio, a jazzier outpouring of the composer’s talents to the backing of double bass and drums.
Although “Atlases” imparts a much more sober tale than its alter ego, the Trio makes its vibrant influence felt in other places. Opener “The Main Sequence” starts with a monotonous, Reich-esque synth chord rhythm, steadfast amid the sway and swoon of ostinato and melody. After three minutes this rhythm is joined by a distant cymbal ping, announcing the almost nonchalant entrance of a full drum kit played by Trio member Daniel Farrugia. The beat is delightfully disjointed and jazz-inflected, lightening the mood and crucially never pushing the synths toward the crescendo one might expect. That arrives mid-way through the record in “Two Places”, a concise piano piece that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Nils Frahm disc – except for the gentle intrusion of electric guitar and the growing storm conjured by the drums. The piano chords that resound when all else is abruptly silenced catch off guard, and epitomise the turns Howard makes throughout the set. Others include the wholehearted synth ambience of 12-minute “The Mist Hardships” and the Mono-esque melancholy of post-rock-esque “Holtsgata”. Howard has previously presented these genres like prevailing winds, guiding yet invisible; here they wield the influence of strong currents.
Time seems to add further dimension to Howard’s compositions. The strains of violin and piano in “Radio Fields” seem to arrive through a sepia filter, while a harpsichord in “The Crossing Of The Years” transports us to a time of court jesters and troubadours until a layered strings sequence, redolent of a grand film soundtrack, arrives with anachronistic pomp. Most special of all is “Peripatetic”, a dynamic chamber piece during which a theatrical drama seems to unfold before us. After the curtain falls, the calm waters of the final two tracks feel anticlimactic – their exclusion would have meant a more satisfying conclusion.
Two Places seems to chart the wanderings of Howard as both wayfarer and composer. Perhaps those titular places are symbolic of this personal duality – doubtless a cause of friction and yet entwining inextricably, feeding each other with inspiration. Lacking the homogeneity of prior sets, Two Places instead shines as a bearer of more diverse cargo, drifting through waters unattached to genre or expectation. (Chris Redfearn)