A musical acquaintance long ago opined that vocals and drums together was the purest form of music, each the most unmitigated expression, respectively, of melody and rhythm. This partnership alone is rarely found – perhaps because its purity is also incredibly exposing.
Find Sound opens with this duo. The titular first track commences with choral waves soon joined by an undertow of percussion. The tranquility of the voices ~ at times in unison, at others in fleeting competition for attention ~ suggests a bird in flight, gaining strength with altitude and reaching towards something sublime. The rather pedestrian rhythm, in contrast, tugs at the avian quest for transcendence with a nagging insistence. It seems to doubt the bird’s fortitude.
This piece sets the tone for a record of ‘miniature sonic paintings’ that together depict the emotional confusion of young adulthood. Such a simple and universal concept, but one surprisingly not often encountered. And what better means of conveying the different personas that we come to inhabit as we age than the human voice, in multitude? For while percussion, bass lines and synth pads form the palette, the dominating voices provide the delineation. Many vocal groups cohere their individual voices to present something powerful and singular; led by singer, composer and producer Kieran Brunt, the thoroughly modern Shards instead revel in the distinctive qualities of their singers, accentuating the variety. In doing so, they convey the distinct, conflicting voices we all hear within as we navigate our way through the fields of freedom to the rigid lanes of responsibility. Listen to how the different vocal lines cavort around each other in “Unrest”, one group urgently whispering to another whose wordless swells lend the restless dynamic that gives this captivating piece its name. The brooding energy is given brief release halfway through, as lyric sopranos burst through the clouds. The more focused “Lost” casts an eerie solo soprano into the quiet gloom, in time joined by echoes fragmented and tinged with dissonance. A wisp of a male voice briefly enters, then withdraws, heightening the sense of isolation and longing for companionship.
In other tracks, the vocalists bind themselves in more cohesive choral compositions. The inner voices that distract and nag coalesce into something singular ~ something that gains significance as you dwell upon it, magnify its severity. The sombre and hymnal “Thoughts” expresses this unison and projection, building from small origins to something powerful and overwhelming. These thoughts turn to devilry in “Summer Sickness”, which contrasts bucolic charm with inner turmoil, its bright synth arpeggio occasionally stumbling and the warming timbre of the vocal harmonies disguising icicle thoughts:
‘The road to work feels like it’s never-ending; and when I see the schoolboys playing in the street, I feel like I should drown them.’
Hearing such sentiment is jarring, but we cannot control our thoughts; we just dare not voice them for their exposing nature. And then “Beams” ~ the lengthiest of these concise tracks at over six minutes ~ seems to dispel with thoughts entirely, as a shimmering synth and kick drum cast a euphoric pall over dulcet, distant harmonies, wordless and flowing like sinuous rivers twinkling in the sunlight. ‘I needed the sun, and I can’t believe it came’, the singers echo in the final, touching coda, the recording as bare as the emotions we have borne witness to across these 10 tracks. And so we circle back to the purity so evident throughout ~ the purity of the musical delivery in poignant contrast to a child’s loss of purity as she ages.
Many will already be familiar with this vocal group ~ perhaps unknowingly ~ through their contributions to the latest records of Michael Price and Nils Frahm. Shards have now stepped into the spotlight with an engrossing and triumphant debut, wide of eye and open of mouth. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)