Ralph Heidel ~ Modern Life

Ostensibly Ralph Heidel is a saxophonist, but saying that is a bit like calling the Super Bowl a football game. On the evidence of Modern Life, the 28 year old’s second album, he’s an extraordinary young performer, composer and improviser who can blend jazz, electronics and contemporary classical music into a heady amalgam, both intellectually stimulating and profoundly beautiful. At times Modern Life pulses with the frantic energy of a rave, but can turn on a dime and fill the listener with a gently aching melancholy. Gloriously contradictory, Modern Life is a spectacular statement by an innovative young musician at the height of his powers.
“AVI”, recorded in the artist’s apartment during lockdown, begins with synth loops and the clicks of a felted piano. His trademark layered choir of saxophones doesn’t enter for over a minute. Heidel’s expressiveness gives the instrument a voice as it comes alive in his hands. The track builds to its first climax, upon which the saxophone disappears, replaced by a low interlude for strings and piano. When the sax returns, the track enters a second crescendo, glitchy drums growing in prominence until they are all that remains.
The saxophone choirs return in “HULO” and sound so human that one can almost hear words. This track takes an unpredictable journey.  The opening section is interrupted by a section of string tremolos and rising synth arpeggios, the latter continuing as the saxophone choir, piano and glitchy drum accompaniment break into an achingly beautiful string quartet. “RADICAL MATTER” is immediately appealing, opening with such a catchy saxophone chordal loop that when the drums enter, it seems clear that this is a dance track; except it’s not, because wailing strings introduce a new melancholy, deftly moving the piece into a totally different world.
In a mostly instrumental album, the vocals of “ADMIRING” stand out. In this collaboration with Plateau Green, Heidel sings the verses while Green’s breathy vocals take the chorus. The opening lines, “other people / another sequel of fear / I feel insecure / I feel alive with you”, depict that complex mix of emotions we feel when we spend time with people we admire excessively, and speak to the contradictions of the album’s topic. Similar alienation is present at the end of “WENN ICH WACH WERDE” as a woman says in German, “when I wake, you will have betrayed me. Shame. I thought I touched you”. In the press release, Kryptox writes that Heidel believes “the main goal of his generation is the excessive craving of recognition”.  The hollow futility of the pursuit of that desire comes across in the bleak twin tracks “VOID (THEME)” and “THE VOID OF MODERN LIFE”.
Although much of the album’s second half seems touched by the nihilism of the modern age, Heidel offers grounds for optimism in the final track, “OLD SOUL”. The same creaking felted piano that began the album returns in a series of unsettling chords.  Halfway through, the track takes a turn and is filled with a comforting warmth conveyed by Heidel’s layered hums. And so the album ends, suddenly, unresolved, full of gentle hope.  (Garreth Brooke)

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