Tuesday, August 21, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Rebecca Brandt - Numbers & Shapes

By Steve Jones

Numbers & Shapes is the debut LP from Brooklyn-based composer Rebecca Brandt. It contains 14 pieces of instrumental music and lasts 49 minutes.

The best way I can describe this album would be that it reminds of the old school RPG soundtracks that I grew up with. Let me explain: the great thing about those soundtracks was that their limited scope of sounds forced composers to compensate by pouring more effort into composition and experimentation with genres. That way, they could produce a score with compact, distinctive themes for each town and dungeon, each battle and scenario, using only 8 or 16 bits of sound. This spirit of exploration is something I hear too in Brandt's music, but she, free from any hardware limitations, fleshes out her compositions with up to about 30 instruments and sounds in a single piece. It's a winning combination.

It's easy to glean from just one listen that a lot of work went into this album. Each track has a rich and unique assortment of sounds, ranging from more classically traditional ensembles to modern electroacoustic fusions. The tracks themselves are fun, short, and very digestible. I actually would have liked to have heard more development on some of the themes on this record, but I can also respect the decision to restrict their scope for the sake of consistency and palatability. It means that I can see, and have seen, this record having a lot of success with music listeners who might not normally consider listening to a set of pieces by a young, classically-trained composer. The lightheartedness of Numbers & Shapes betrays its complexity, and it feels down-to-earth, never boastful.

Just to vamp on my RPG soundtrack comparison a bit more, it's fun to imagine the kinds of scenarios which would use these tracks in their background. The first piece "Staying Silent" starts small, but soon evolves into a lush collection of woodwinds and voices. It's a mellow track, but it contains a sense of wonder that would belong in some kind of introductory scene. "Run" has a playful contrast between its frenetic percussion and lackadaisical saxophone, so I could hear it accompanying one of those whimsical conflicts which you find towards the beginning of a game, before the story really kicks into gear. The brooding piano of "The Clock Breaks at Three" definitely belongs to a villain. "Jivko" could be incidental music for a forest, while the dark ambiance of "54" can be found in the cave hidden in that forest. Finally, "The Twelve Tones" is totally the music for a crystal-laden dungeon straight out of a Final Fantasy game, and, in fact, a lot of the album reminds me tangentially of Kumi Tanioka's soundtrack for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. It's not so much that the music is similar, but the attention to detail and the focus on the harmony between melody and arrangement are things at which both Tanioka and Brandt excel.

The piece which best works as the album's lead "single," if you want one, would be the last track, "The Moment." I don't want to talk about it too much, because it's a thing best experienced with little introduction, but if you're on the fence about whether or not this album may be something which interests you, at least give that track a spin.

I've been comparing Numbers & Shapes to a soundtrack a lot, and while I don't say so in a negative sense, the music might not be engaging enough for some listeners. I have no qualms with background music, and I think Brandt's compositions transcend that moniker for the most part. Their pleasantness, however, might also be part of their undoing. This isn't music designed to challenge so much as to entertain. It isn't a bold statement, but it is an outsider approach to entertainment, and a beyond respectable one at that. It might not be to everyone's liking, but I also think a lot of people will be surprised by this album if they give it a chance. Me? I'm loving Numbers & Shapes. It's a fun and imaginative variety of pieces indicative of a talented composer.

Score: Decent 8

As if you needed anything else to sway you, the entire album is available for whatever price you choose on Bandcamp. Give it a listen and, if you like it, give a couple bucks.

(Steve Jones will relate anything and everything back to the fact that he listened exclusively to Nobuo Uematsu until he was 17. You can flaunt how much better your musical rearing was at his Twitter @vestenet.)

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