The piano is the ultimate instrument of introspection. Few other solo instruments come close to the near-orchestral range of register and timbre, or have a design that so clearly and intuitively lays out what’s possible; and no solo instrument comes even remotely close to being so available. It’s no wonder then that over the past decade, as recording technology has become ever more accessible, there has been such a deluge of solo piano albums.
James Heather is aware of the flood, tweeting recently that “a few years ago someone in the industry told me to rush out a new piano album while the sound is still trendy”. That wasn’t a piece of advice he followed. Instead he spent five years designing and putting together a studio, evolving his sound and developing a complex album concept. If that’s not immediately obvious on the first track, it’s not the fault of the album, but rather a function of genre overexposure.
This is, however, an album that deserves closer inspection. Heather calls its language “pulse music”, which I interpret as referring to the post-rock-like interplay of rising and falling tempi and dynamics, plus the tension and release of repeated suspensions, a characteristic of Heather’s sound. The composition process was based around repeatedly improvising on the same material until a track cohered into a consistent structure. Traces of that process can be felt everywhere, whether in the reiteration and slow evolution of motifs or the flexible approach to tempo.
The album opens relatively simply with “Meant To Be”, but expands in “No Time Limit To Grief” to a much fuller sound. Deep bass notes resound spectacularly on his Bösendorfer grand as he establishes a compelling polyrhythmic interchange between tenor melody and alto accompaniment. The title of this spine-tingling track is indicative of its emotional depth. Heather is no stranger to suffering and the complex ways people deal with trauma, as he details in a fascinating interview with Spitfire Audio’s Composer magazine. His emotional literacy and desire to use his music to connect with others on a profound level sets him apart from some of his peers.
Further standout pieces include twin tracks “Ultraviolet” and “Forgotten Cities”. Their segue is separated by only a moment of silence, the gentle former track serving as an introduction to the longer latter track, which transforms their shared opening ostinato into a harmonically adventurous epic. At times the piece rumbles like thunder, at other times drives like hard rain. The impressive title track follows, opening with a deceptive similarity to previous tracks before transforming itself through numerous iterations. At one point a melody emerges that might be described as mystic jazz. While extraordinarily diverse, the track nevertheless feels coherent: there’s an underlying logic in its transformations.
Profound, inventive and emotionally rich, Invisible Forces is a welcome contribution to the genre by an artist who has taken the time to develop and mature his sound. (Garreth Brooke)