- For an artist so highly regarded for consistency, Sam Shepherd hasn't really stuck with a particular sound for very long. His precociously gifted and prodigiously clever talents have opened his compositions to more nuance and deeper complexity with each iteration of Floating Points—the shifting continuum between "Nuits Sonores" and "For You" leans as much on his early classical training as it does his lauded Plastic People residency. Shepherd's virtuosity has afforded no jarring missteps along the way, and it continues in kind throughout his long-awaited debut album. Yet despite the record's wall-to-wall gorgeousness, Elaenia can feel tantalisingly out of reach.
The intellectualism of ensemble arrangements and meditative electronics take precedence over any overt links to club culture, so there's nary a 4/4 to be found here. This dismantling of structure ought to have allowed Shepherd's lush instrumentation to hog the spotlight a little, but it's had the curious side effect of causing it to retreat into low-lit dimness.
After numerous listens of Elaenia, by the end of penultimate track "For Mamish" I find myself in the same position: hunching into my headphones, or creeping the speaker volume upwards, in an effort to bring those layers of bespoke acoustic phrasing a little nearer, make those tiny electronics feel more tactile. It's a curious style choice given the full-bodied sound of releases like 2013's Wires and the Floating Points Ensemble 12-inch. In comparison, the first part of Elaenia's jazz-funk opus "Silhouettes I, II, III" feels as delicate as gossamer, with whisper-quiet drums and synths notes of such weightlessness that they fade into translucence. The second part is where "Silhouettes" comes to life, with warmer tones and an emotionally resonant string section. It really loosens up in the final third, with Tom Skinner and Susumu Mukai finally allowed to settle into a looser groove.
"For Mamish" is most recognisably Floating Points. No percussive elements but a pillowy bass drum accompany the song's laid back Rhodes melody, which hovers in a hazy dream state. The title track is similarly dreamy, if not more so, as its barely perceptible ambient hiss and spaced out notes combine for a gently lulling effect. "Thin Air" and "Nespole" work as each other's alter egos. Each one combines grids of minimalist structure with organic textures—the former eventually succumbs to a rush of bubbling liquid sounds, and the latter moulds its rounded pulses into sharper angles that mimic the rigid programming.
"Argenté"'s progression from a looped seven-note synth scale to a soaring, swooping, cinematic composition is aided by an impassioned piano solo, which helps build some needed tension and makes the abrupt ending at its peak feel like a satisfying pay off. It's a motif repeated by bracing closer "Peroration Six," where the extended ensemble rhythm section bares its teeth. A single frayed guitar note sets the scene, as strings and horns combine to make their through an upwards rush of notes. Skinner's drums unleash some hellfire, taking the album towards its frenzied crescendo and sudden halt—a surprising show of strength from Shepherd.
It was unlikely the first Floating Points album would've been anything other than beautiful, though its stunning virtuosity turned out more elusive than expected. Shepherd's flawless Eglo catalogue had the power to coax his followers off the dance floor with him, and Elaenia's sophisticated sense of musical accomplishment ought to keep them there.
02. Silhouettes (I, II, II)
05. Thin Air
06. For Marmish
07. Peroration Six