Neal Heppleston ~ Plankton and the Whale Shark

A double bassist is a perfect candidate to record music about the ocean depths, as the instrument lends itself well to low and lugubrious timbres.  But bassist Neal Heppleston has even more in mind; each piece tells a story signaled by its title, making the album a short story collection.  And not everything is so dark; in fact, opening piece “Siphonophore” refers to a long string of organisms that creates a trail of bioluminescence.

Also striking for an album that connotes loneliness is the large number of guest musicians, expanding the roster to ten – although never more than five on a single track.  The dreamy twelve-minute title track features Graham McElearney on harp, producing a feeling of safety to match the feeling of the smaller creature, unaware that it is being pursued by the whale shark (voiced by double bass).  Ambience turns to drone as the predator approaches.

While listening, it’s interesting to note how different a deep sea album is from a beach album, despite the fact that they each address the same body of water.  The former is typically light and airy, the latter dark and dense.  “Ghost Ship” tilts even further, into the realm of retro rock.  The sailors may still haunt the sea, but they seem to be dancing obliviously just before the disaster.  James Mainwaring’s saxophone makes this the album’s brightest track.  “In Fathoms” switches genres to modern composition, as the guitars are joined by harmonium, piano and violin.  The timbre is mournful, as if a soul has been lost.  This feeling is extended in the slow drift of “The Descent of the Diving Bell,” which brings to mind Petrels’ classic Haeligewielle.  The diving bell descends, but does not return.  A string trio plays a mournful elegy.  Sequenced deep in the set, mirroring the diving bell in the silt, this piece is the set’s most elegant and memorable.

While many instrumental artists produce “soundtracks for the mind,” Heppleston makes the most of the invisible literary connection.  The best short story collections offer a variety of subjects and approaches, joined by a common thread.  Plankton and the Whale Shark enters the ears instead of the eyes, but produces the same effect.  (Richard Allen)

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