It’s a weighty philosophical conundrum to throw around as an album title. It’s a tricky question to crack within the space of a review, certainly, but it may get you thinking as you scroll through reviews alongside your morning bowl of Coco Pops. Is there such a thing as free will in the first place? Is everything pre-ordained by a divine power, or are we trapped within a Matrix-style virtual reality? Is Deniz Cuylan sending us a message through the medium of music to say: I know what you’re thinking, and… Or are we supposed to think that we are exercising free will by choosing the healthy muesli option rather than snaffling the aforementioned rice-based cereal?
Cuylan doesn’t want to shy away from the big questions but it’s not easy to communicate a philosophy in a purely instrumental work; it is easier to interpret emotions through music, be it sadness or joy. For him, this album is all about ‘heartbreak – the inherent, abstract heartbreak we all have… We’re constantly disappointed in other people and in ourselves.’ As such, it’s more likely that No Such Thing As Free Will will have you looking thoughtfully out the window on a rainy afternoon, rather than contemplating the mechanics of the universe at the bottom of a cereal bowl.
The opening track “Clearing” is a beguiling, bucolic way in, setting the scene for a half-hour of acoustic introspection. Although Cuylan has played in numerous groups, covering many varying styles from post-rock to trip-hop, his first instrument was the classical guitar, which he learnt as a schoolboy. Many years later, he found himself buying a new (and expensive) guitar built by Thomas Norwood, an instrument that he didn’t immediately gel with. The guitar didn’t respond to his song-writing, so in an admirable change of approach, Cuylan let the guitar speak through him. Perhaps this guidance from an inanimate object indicates a loss of free will, but the album as a whole suggests that the guitar knows what it is doing.
It’s an album made up of thoughtfully arranged and beautifully played pieces, layering the guitars when needed, or adding a few additional washes of piano or cello to add a little flesh to the bare bones. On several tracks Cuylan multi-tracks the guitar to give a Steve Reich-esque ‘acoustic counterpoint’ feel, working best on “She Was Always Here” which, as the longest piece here, has a little more time to develop its themes and its progression from single guitar to many. Cuylan (or his guitar) has a way with a melody, too; there are hooks aplenty to tune into, and you can hit repeat on this album knowing there’s always a fresh line to focus on.
No Such Thing As Free Will throws down a major point to ponder in its title, and although it doesn’t attempt to provide a solution to that question, it does provide some comfort to the ‘abstract heartbreak’, in a quiet, soothing manner. It’s certainly an album that will soundtrack those moments when you sit and gaze at the world for a stretch, whether it is from behind a screen or in a park. An understated work, yes, but a miniature marvel. (Jeremy Bye)