- Inspired by his grandparents' emigration to the States, Nothing Is Still shows Leon Vynehall elevating his music to new heights.
- Since the beginning of his career, Leon Vynehall has tried to define himself as more than a dance music producer. He built his reputation in the early '10s with house music singles that often snuck downtempo cuts onto the B-side. On 2014's Music For The Uninvited, his creative breakthrough, Vynehall's club tracks developed a distinct identity away from the dominant UK house sound, while its dips into downtempo and ambient were, through their use of strings and bass, equally impressive. "Midnight On Rainbow Road," his dreamy contribution to the Musik For Autobahns 2 (Ambient Race Car Music) compilation, was so good that Rush Hour gave it a separate vinyl release. And back in 2014, his mix for Ninja Tune's Solid Steel radio show included nearly 30 of his unreleased hip-hop tracks and edits. "It's funny you keep saying house," said Vynehall, seemingly a bit pissed off, in an interview with 52 Insights last month, "as I never see myself as this house guy."
Even with all of this mind, Nothing Is Still, the UK artist's debut album, is still a striking development. The record is basically an imagined soundtrack to his grandparents' journey from the UK to New York City—and the life that followed—in the 1960s. Four years ago, Vynehall's grandfather died, and in the period of mourning his grandmother told him the story of their immigration. As he looked over his grandparents' old Polaroids, Vynehall began to conceive of the project. The resulting album, which has a pair of accompanying short films and a novella that comes with the box-set version, is a convincing musical translation of the hope, expectations and disappointments of starting a new life somewhere else.
Vynehall's sense of musicality and use of instrumentation had begun to stand out in recent years (he played in bands when he was younger and apparently dabbles in a few instruments), but on Nothing Is Still he takes a huge step forwards. The record features a ten-piece string section arranged by Amy Langley, as well as the saxophonist and flautist Finn Peters and the pianist Sam Beste. This could have merely served to boost the project's "serious music" credentials. But one of the album's key qualities is how Vynehall uses these musicians to enrich a sound that feels authentically his own. There are almost no dance beats on the record, but again, this feels like Vynehall moving farther down a path he'd already explored.
You can sense a narrative unfolding across the early tracks. The album opens with "From The Sea / It Looms (Chapters I & II)," which uses layers of strings and an impressively rich synth chord to suggest nervous excitement. "Movements (Chapter III)," with its airy sax and piano, could represent the contemplation of ocean travel, while "Birds On The Tarmac (Footnote III)," might be the disorientation of arriving in a new place.
Things are less clear but more surprising later on. I'm not sure how Vynehall struck on the idea of upending a Steve Reich-inspired arrangement with an Objekt-style kick and bass combo on "Trouble - Parts I, II, & III (Chapter V)," but it works. "English Oak (Chapter VII)" similarly begins with rapid orchestral motion, before dropping the album's only straight kick drum and becoming an off-kilter club track. "Drinking It In Again (Chapter IV)," meanwhile, sounds like it could have appeared on Jan Jelinek's Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records. These are curveballs. But Vynehall smooths their passage by creating an environment in which tracks move fluidly through several ideas. The album's title is instructive here.
The short film for "Envelopes (Chapter VI)," one of the album's standout tracks, is shot in sombre black and white by Young Replicant, an acclaimed director who's worked with Flying Lotus and The xx. It shows the young couple back in the UK, where they find letters they'd sent home in a pile, unopened. Aside from being an affecting piece of filmmaking, the clip—and the accompanying chapter of the novella—shows how deeply Vynehall invested in and connected with the album's concept. This is also obvious in the record's closing stages, where strings and piano create bubbling stream of emotion. It's in these moments that Vynehall transcends his tag as a dance music producer and simply becomes a musician who's expressing himself.
01. From The Sea / It Looms (Chapters I & II)
02. Movements (Chapter III)
03. Birds On The Tarmac (Footnote III)
04. Julia (Footnote IV)
05. Drinking It In Again (Chapter IV)
06. Trouble - Parts I, II, & III (Chapter V)
07. Envelopes (Chapter VI)
08. English Oak (Chapter VII)
09. Ice Cream (Chapter VIII)
10. It Breaks (Chapter IX)