Live Review: Rhian Sheehan – A Quiet Divide – Wellington (Michael Fowler Centre) October 12 2018


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I will confess up front that I’ve always been a champion of Sheehan’s work.  That goes back to the time he gave me a copy of his first album, Paradigm Shift, which he made in his little dingy Newtown flat on a computer and guitars.  I was impressed then and always have been by his experimental approach and continued scientific ‘bent’ to his music.  No doubt commissions with big hitters like NASA (3D Planetarium shows) and creating for exhibits and rollercoaster theme park rides and Weta workshop projects have influenced his compositional viewpoint, as have travel, especially to India a few years back.  And his work has always been revolved around space, and alternatively, more grounded themes like ecology and humankind’s exploitation of our planet.

Tonight’s show was once again a very ambitious project.  Like his previous shows, it involved a mix of music and projections, combining a dream-like montage of visuals with challenging and highly charged thematic music.

The last show I saw was pretty ‘out there’, literally suspending images over the band.  That show was back in 2013, and a mix of music and images from his last two albums, Standing In Silence and Stories From Elsewhere – both impressive studies in ambient electronica with a smouldering cinematic undertow.

Tonight we arrived at a room full of dry ice ‘smoke’ lit in greasy, gloomy tones like the marshlands before the ascent of Mount Doom.  On stage were three huge screens, running floor to ceiling and angled in a loose triangle, encasing some of the band.  In perfect symmetry, a large inverted triangular prism hung in the centre of this pseudo-pagan construction.  During the show, a vast array of different imagery would be projected across these curtains and through the prism which was made of a number of smaller mirrored triangles to diffract the light around the room.  This part reminds one instantly of early Pink Floyd shows and was perhaps a nod to that era by the designers from Weta Workshops, who created all this.

Sheehan has brought back old collaborators including guitarist Jeff Boyle (Jakob), drummer Ed Zuccollo (Trinity Roots), pianist and partner Raashi Malik (Rhombus), bassist Marika Hodgson (Hollie Smith), vocalist Anna Edgington (EDIE), and percussionists Steve Bremner (The Adults) and Grant Myhill, who all were vital to bringing this elaborate recorded vision to life on the big stage.

Flanked on stage right was a string section, provided by experimental jazz-classical ensemble Stroma, and led by conductor, Ewan Clark.  Stroma did a fair amount of the heavy lifting for this show, especially in the first half. Their treatment of the souring piece We Danced Under A Broken Sky. Musically, this album was probably as close to a classical experience as Sheehan has gotten so far in his career.  The show opens with a yawning soundscape Elegy For The Past, reminiscent of German industrialists or early British electronica but then folds into more melancholic themes such as The Absence Of You and the delicious and lush Lost Letters, which was accompanied by visuals of dancing, watery figures.  On other tunes, there are themes lifted from Baroque themes, some Eno, Boards of Canada, hints of Jack Body’s Wellington scenes, perhaps, and Douglas Lilburn, pastoral connections, and even some Vaughan Williams.  It was suggested to me that the piano parts intentionally emphasised a number of ‘kiwi-tinged notes’.  I thought that was very apt, with themes and motifs that drew back through popular local soundtracks from television and movies like The Piano.

Thematically, A Quiet Divide deals with our relationship with the past. “We understand our time is limited,” Sheehan says of this work, “and that every poignant moment we experience is fleeting, tinged with a little sadness, because we know every moment is ephemeral; every experience immediately evaporating into a memory, slowly fading, gone.”  No stronger is that sentiment than on Last Time We Spoke, which gravitates around a motif built around a simple wind up music box ditty, a recurring device in Sheehan’s music.  The music reflects the sadness of the loss of relationships and moments. Time is slipping away, like sands washing out to sea.  Much of this mostly downbeat set dwell on reflection and sorrow.  But, here and there, is optimism and a general feeling of hopefulness, especially in the closers (of the album and firsts half) on the swelling forces in April and 1982.

The second half revisits a material from Standing In Silence (2009) and Stories From Elsewhere (2013) which saw Sheehan start the journey away from his earlier electronica roots, stepping deeper into ambient orchestral soundscapes.  So it natural, given the themes of time and reflection to revisit some moments from these albums again. It was also satisfying to hear the orchestral elements on some of this earlier music come to life on the stage.

Overall, the mix of old, new and the incredible visuals made this a great night – perhaps tinged with some sadness and reflection on the slipping of time.  I am still in awe of Sheehan’s ambitiousness!


Pacific Heights – Self titled (Warners)

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Solo, Devon Abrams has never been one to bring the noise.  At least not with the urgent energy that defined his previous gig with beloved d’n’b heroes Shapeshifter. On his last album, The Stillness, he concentrated on delivering music that was tense and atmospheric.  This time, inspired by a disturbing dream of isolation and abandonment, he’s increased the intensity and even introduced a little melodrama into the mix.

This is Abrams’ third album, under his Pacific Heights moniker.  2016’sThe Stillness paid homage to his musical past, particularly the darker elements of drum’n’bass roots, while also allowing some freedom to explore more the more ethereal elements of progressive electronica. This new album does the same,  but this time, as a fully formed soundtrack.

Like all great movie music, it sets the scene early on.  The opener, The Greystone, begins with purpose, a repeating piano riff that builds over the first 20-30 seconds into a high note that acts as a metronome, counting the beat and setting the pace.  Its beautifully cinematic, reminding me of Michael Nyman’s work for The Piano.  You can hear the rain, the imposing bush, maybe  the rolling surf.

The repetitive piano chords follow a theme that will repeat in future numbers like Lost in A Dream, which is delivered deliciously by newcomer Neil MacLeod.  Another theme that repeats is the ‘Pacific’ feel, hidden in the opening salvo of that and other songs.  Remember the opening chords of 808 State’s Pacific State?   It’s kind of like that.  That’s intentional.

Apparently, the album was inspired by a very intense, visceral dream Abrams had, in which he dreamed he was young working class man who sails to the Pacific to escape his grimy 19th century environment.

The early songs also have sirens and industrial grunge to help set the scene.  But then the mood sharply turns with single The End is in Sight,featuring Joe Dukie’s (Fat Freddy’s Drop) soft-tinged vocals. Whilst he’s sweet, the tone in ominous.  Dark clouds roll in like war-frigates through mist.  A storm is coming. There’s always a storm within Abrams, it seems. The ebb and flow of The Stillness was testament to that. The tune builds very dramatically and throws us off the ship at the end of the song, and the next stage is about survival at sea.

Then our hero is washed upon the shores of an isolated island, devoid of humanity, grieving any possibility of returning to your family.  This is best summed up on the number Frozen Tear, again sung by Macleod.  It opens with a heavenly choir, perhaps halocin angels.  The harmonies are spine-tingling and offset the castaway’s plea for human contact where none is possible.  This is the theme that dominates the bulk of the album. Four years of living alone, going through all the stages of this internal storm.

The final stages of this tale should have a sense of closure, but Abrams decides to leaves it all open.  The final lyric in the closer My Dear Love Part 2 : “Is it better to tie these rocks and stones to my bones and sink, than be alone?” HIs thinking. Is that after four years of living in solitude without any human touch, without any human interaction, a desperate reach out – is that too much for a human soul to endure?

This album demands multiple listens.  Some songs have obvious themes, others mix modern metaphors and time honoured story telling.  There’s a smoky, almost menacing vibe to many of the tracks. The music moved from dreamy to coiled and tense, like a tightly wound spring ready to explode with flaring electric surges of white noise and dense beats.

Listen over and over.  Immerse in this pool of audio pleasure.