- Musicians forge intimate partnerships that can last a lifetime. That's the story behind Nonkeen. It's a band whose roots go back to 1989, when pianist Nils Frahm struck up a friendship with schoolmate Frederic Gmeiner and East German exchange student Sebastian Singwald. The trio reportedly made their own radio show as kids, shared recordings through the '90s and fell in and out of touch over the following decades, before reuniting to make The Gamble.
Though this is the first Nonkeen album, it isn't the trio's first together. In the mid-'00s, the three artists had a project called Übertonmensch, releasing two records before disbanding. They reunited in 2012 for a one-off gig in Hamburg, a recording of which sounds not unlike Nonkeen. Maybe that detracts from The Gamble's sentimental backstory, but those details are secondary to the music. Borrowing ideas from post-rock and krautrock, the album's improvisational nature tends to swallow the individuality of its members—particularly Frahm—in its glacial drift.
The Gamble starts out beautifully. The swirling grandeur of "The Invention Mother" carries Frahm's gift for making the simplest melody sound poignant. His sweeping sensibilities jump to post-rock on "Saddest Continent On Earth," and then the trio work up an appealing psychedelic simmer on "Ceramic People." They're mostly content to jam, focusing on a single motif and letting stray notes slip out here and there. And that's where the problems start—by track five, Nonkeen sound lost. They waffle blandly on "This Beautiful Mess," seem confused on "Capstan" and veer dangerously close to proggy jazz-fusion on the plodding "Chasing God Through Palmyra." These songs aren't necessarily bad, but getting through the album starts to feel like wading through molasses.
The album ends with a song as resplendent as its opener. "Re:turn!" is exactly what you'd hope for from this kind of band; the drums rattle and reverberate in odd places, soothing drones coat the background. Frahm lays down one of his wonderful minimalist melodies, letting notes ripple into the calm around them. "Re:turn!" is so stunning that the middle of The Gamble feels misused by comparison.
With jam-based music, it's easy to take for granted that things might not always turn out well, or that momentum might succumb to exploration. Much of The Gamble sounds like the fussy midsection of an impromptu performance—all the noodling without any of the payoff. After working together on and off for years, this trio obviously have a special connection, but it's only apparent in fits and spurts. Instead, The Gamble sounds more like close friends—however long they've known each other—trying to tap into something they once shared, but rarely capturing its essence.
01. The Invention Mother
02. Saddest Continent On Earth
03. Ceramic People
04. Animal Farm
05. This Beautiful Mess
07. Chasing God Through Palmyra
08. Pink Flirt