like rain through my hands
Alchemy Records (2004)

Keyboard player Michael Whalen, long absent from the ambient and spacemusic scene (while hard at work in other genres) returns in a big way with both the re-release of his classic Nightscenes album (reviewed elsewhere this issue) and this brand new recording which signals the artist’s reemergence as a force to be reckoned with in ambient and electronic music. like rain through my hands easily qualifies as one of the best ambient releases of this year. This is sublime music; it will flow effortlessly out of your speakers or headphones, transporting you to sonic territories that are, by turns, billowing with subtle beauty, drifting with a delicate sense of melancholy, or lightly entrancing you with gentle rhythms. The artist combines echoed piano with his arsenal of synthesizers (some of which will be reminiscent of Nightscenes). What struck me immediately upon my first playing of like rain through my hands is how distinctive Whalen’s music is; there is no one else in the ambient, new age, spacemusic or electronica genres who blends acoustic piano with the same array of ethereal, cosmic, yet melodic and accessible synths yielding such beautiful results.

According to the artist (in a press release which accompanied the album), the title is meant to be metaphorical (alluding to Whalen’s awareness of the passage of time in his life). However, I take the title somewhat literally, for in these seven pieces (which are enigmatically titled “part one,” “part two,” and so on) I also get strong musical impressions of rainscapes: the gentle sunshower of “part one” (twinkling background synths, light-hearted echoed piano, bell tone sequences, and softly sighing wisps of textures), the darker-tinted “part three” with its plucked harp echoed refrains, somber minimal piano, and minor key synth chorales and strings (evocative of gray skies and threatening severe weather, in the same way that Mychael Danna’s superb recording skys worked the same feat), or the moody synth tones and washes and midtempo rhythms of “part four” which could be the soundtrack for driving in a steady downpour as light fades and each drop on the windshield reflects urban neon as you cruise the deserted streets. “Part six” drops in some funkiness and urban rhythms with evolving sampled hand percussion and drum kits beats amid the synths, piano, and effects, painting a portrait of people bustling amidst a cityscape’s night life even while the skies open up, prompting much scurrying to reach destinations (even going as far as to remind me of cars racing past, imparted via the occasional whooshing sound in the background)

Well, that’s my interpretation and (of course) it may not be yours. I’m a “rain lover” after all. Regardless whether you paint the same mental images I do or not, like rain through my hands is a superb recording, brimming with musical textures, melodies, shadings, and elements that alternate from haunting to warmly inviting, from melancholic to engaging, from lush and inviting to stark and minimal, yet never alienating or discomfiting. While this is not as “spacy” as parts of Nightscenes, it’s also more “human” even when it is sparse, such as on the more abstract sounding “part five” (which might remind you of the piano-led main title track from John Carpenter’s The Fog, albeit much less intimidating and scary).

like rain through my hands marks Michael Whalen’s arrival back on a scene that sorely missed him (from my perspective, at least). Hearing his unique brand of musical magic once again is like, well, the same refreshing feeling I get after rain has cleansed the air and the earth, or the high I get from an impending thunderstorm looming on the horizon, or the lonely yet comforting warmth I feel on a drizzly gray afternoon as I sit and reflect. Surely one of the more evocative recordings of recent note, this album earns my highest recommendation as well as a shout out to Michael Whalen “Welcome Back!”

Alchemy Records (2004)

A classic of electronic music/spacemusic, originally released in 1996 on Hearts of Space, has been granted new life on Alchemy Records. Michael Whalen’s Nightscenes (formerly titled Nightscenes: Music for the Evening) has been made even better with re-mastering, as well as the addition of three new songs displaying the artist’s older spacier style as well as his contemporary jazz fusion leanings (e.g. on his album, The Border of Dusk). Someone went over the mix and mastering with a fine-tooth comb with the most obvious benefit of more depth in the music and increased separation to the assorted instruments, especially Whalen’s various electronic and acoustic percussion.

Whalen’s unique take on spacemusic/EM incorporates lush flowing synthesizers, warm piano, ewi (electronic woodwind, similar to former HOS label-mate Kevin Braheny), myriad percussion, and plenty of twinkling star-shower/cosmic effects, all anchored with solid musical accessibility and a flowing melodicism that engenders immediate affection and enjoyment. In short, holy cow, is this a great record or what?

“Evening blurs into the neon” (a new song) opens the album amidst dancing kinetic keyboards buoyed by soft synth washes, playful dancing piano, well-done sax samples, and pumping electric bass. The cut overflows with energy as it evokes the feel of people heading out for a night on the town, scurrying to make taxis, greeting the deepening darkness with excitement and a rush of adrenaline. “Close your eyes, the night approaches” is a softer piece yet still anchored by lively rhythmic sampled kalimba, bouncing lightly over ebbing and flowing synth washes, and accented with twinkling effects, chorales, and plaintive piano, with the later addition of tasty but subdued percussive textures and some overtly EM elements.

Next are the re-mastered original tracks, such as the celebratory “Acquainted with the Night” with its dramatically evocative ewi opening and romantic main melody, cushioned by billowing synths and set apart by all manner of synths twinkling and aglow at the periphery. As the album progresses from this point, it becomes much more of a “traditional” spacemusic album and less of an EM/fusion recording, although there is still no mistaking it for anything but a Michael Whalen recording. Each movement of the four-part “Phases of the Moon” features its own distinct sound, such as the peaceful neo-romantic synthesizer of part one, or the steady almost metronome-like rhythms of part two (synth strings soaring on top of gently undulating percussive notes and beats), or celestial part three, which is the perfect soundtrack for deep space drifting and has an almost orchestral sense of drama to it.

Later tracks include the two part “Into the Darkness,” ushered in by the muted sound of a heartbeat on part one, “The Heart of Midnight” (and the music that evolves is indeed music for the deepest part of the night, with ewi, chorales, delicate crystals and chimes, and spacy textures), and continued on in “Journey Towards the Sunrise” (this was the closing track on
the original version), a song that escalates into a bubbly rhythmic blend of vibraphone, piano, pitter-pattering electronic effects, pan-African percussion, and wave after wave of lush synths and chorales. This new version of the CD closes with the last of the three new songs, “It Happened on a Sunday,” a slightly jazzy and less spacy piece blending piano, strings, percussion, and retro analog-type synths carrying the main melody, wrapped up by the tolling of church bells. The cut is a blend of lounge/chill-out and fusion. Following the “time cycle” of the song titles, it is a fitting conclusion to this trip through the night and into the new day, although not quite as satisfying as the previous concluding number (it brings the listener into territory where some of Whalen’s newer music resides).

For those of you who missed Nightscenes on its first go ‘round, this is your lucky day. Michael Whalen weaves his spell, mixing his formidable electronic and acoustic talents into a heady concoction that will exhilarate you, soothe you, and take you on a virtual tour of the night. This is easily my most no-brainer of a “highest recommendation” I’ve ever given.