It’s a bold move to name your debut album after a bird that is best known in popular culture as being a burden or an obstacle. You don’t have to be familiar with the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem (or the Iron Maiden song) Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, to know that having an albatross around one’s neck is not a good thing. It’s even worse for the albatross, of course. But these burdens can weigh you down, whether it is a school or college assignment, an extra-hours project for work or just trying to get your debut album completed. As Simon Leoza took six years to record his debut album, I suspect that the process was weighing on him by the end – however, he claims a different inspiration for his album title. He chalked up the miles during the period he made Albatross, probably crossing the ocean several times, and so the title nods to the immense distances these birds cover.
The music contained within is, in places, indicative of the graceful nature of flight over the boundless sea – albatrosses don’t migrate but they do like to travel, and Leoza’s album covers the ground as well, albeit in a subtle and understated manner. Although sticking mainly with piano and string quartet as the base for the compositions, he carefully embraces differing styles from orchestral swoops to post-rock to pieces fizzing with electronic pulses (he manages all this in the second track “Prophets”). It’s akin to walking through a gallery and seeing a series of paintings: ostensibly created from the same tools but with contrasting results, each one provoking different emotions in the viewer. There’s quite a lot of room ambience in these recordings, too, which perhaps gives a greater feeling of being in a physical space.
The main downside of the listening experience is that the sequencing of the album doesn’t show Leoza’s work off at its best: perhaps there is an interior narrative where it makes sense, and maybe the running order was agonised over for weeks, but Albatross seems to lack a coherent flow from start to finish. To return to the gallery analogy, it is like skipping from one side of the exhibition space to the other to view rather than proceeding in the hung sequence: the pieces are fine enough on their own but a well-sequenced album is greater than the sum of its parts, and that is a failing here. Given that albums are increasingly chopped up for the benefit of playlists and algorithms, having ten first-class tracks that can stand on their own, rather than a single cohesive listening experience probably shouldn’t count against the record.
It’s no surprise to discover that Simon Leoza has years of previous work under his belt: a series of EPs as Tambour for Montreal label Moderna, that gave a pretty clear indication of his direction as early as 2015. He’s also composed a handful of soundtracks, mainly for short films, under his real name Simon P. Castonguay. He should be hammering down the doors of movie, TV and documentary producers with this album tucked under his arm – Leoza is an evocative and accessible composer, plus his arrangements are spare but powerful; he captures both gentle feelings of intimacy and epic drama on the pieces here. We already knew that this was an artist with promise – Albatross confirms this potential. But as an album, it doesn’t quite take off. (Jeremy Bye)