- This otherwise excellent album can't quite leave the club behind.
- A study last year published in Scientific Reports found that spending two hours in a natural setting each week has significant physical and mental health benefits. Nature's positive effect on our wellbeing had already been established through research (and is probably something we all feel intuitively) but this was the first time a period of time—or the necessary "dose"—had been offered. This study came to mind when Hendrik Weber, the German artist known as Pantha Du Prince, said of Conference Of Trees, his new album: "Spending so much time in front of the computer and working with electronic machines started feeling a bit bleak to me. I wanted to find a way to spend more time outdoors and to legitimize it with art." Anxiety over technology and drifting from our natural roots goes back at least as far as ancient China, but in the modern era of climate change, in which we increasingly become a species of digital natives, the need to reconnect can feel almost urgent.
On Conference Of Trees, Weber deals with this by drawing inspiration from what's been called the "wood wide web," the underground network of fungi, bacteria and roots through which plants and trees share information about, for example, nearby nutrients and toxic chemicals. In writing the album, he wanted to ask himself a simple but far-reaching question: What does it sound like when trees communicate? To help him answer this, Weber brought together a percussion ensemble, composed using wooden instruments, and handbuilt instruments himself. He's long been known as an artist who weaves acoustic instruments into his melodic minimal house compositions, but Conference Of Trees quickly feels like the least electronic of the five albums he's now released as Pantha Du Prince.
There's nothing too surprising about Weber's translation of trees into sound, but for plenty of the album that's absolutely OK. The album thinks of trees in the way we perhaps traditionally relate to them: as solemn, magisterial, gentle yet strong. "Approach In A Breeze," the opener, and "Lichtung," the closer, are ten-minute-plus ambient pieces that centrally feature cello. Both are extremely lovely, evoking not the the unseen network of the soil but the swaying canopy of the forest. We seem to go underground with tracks like "Transparent Tickle Shining Glace," "Pius In Tacet" and "Roots Making Family." Weber uses resonant wooden percussion, xylophone and marimbas to create rich, emotive scenes of interlinked fungi, inviting us to imagine the profundity of nature in process. It's at these moments the album feels most alive and in sync with its concept.
Conference Of Trees provides plenty of evidence for Weber's continually developing ear for melodies and musically detailed arrangements, but there are other aspects of his past work that could have been left to one side. The Triad, his last full-length, at times felt twee and fussy, a problem that returns here in one section of the album in particular. It's not really until track six, "The Crown Territory," that the focus falls fully on the dance floor, at which point the spell of the album's first half is broken and we're yanked back to civilisation. Rather than a release or liberation, the kickdrum thump of that track is restrictive—the wild wood becomes a gridded plantation. Likewise the bell-driven "Supernova Space Time Drift," where a rote dance beat just doesn't do justice to the colour and variety elsewhere in the arrangement. The more sad and mysterious "Silentium Larix" is better, but I couldn't help wondering how much it would improve without the drum-machine claps and hi-hats.
It might have been unrealistic to expect Weber to completely move away from his prior attachments to club music. Even if he's not been writing directly for DJs in recent years, the steady thump of minimal house music has been an ever-present, and tracks here like "When We Talk" and "Roots Making Family" do successfully integrate subtle club music expressions. Still, having assembled such a fitting sonic palette and been evidently so inspired by the concept, it's difficult to feel convinced that the dance floor was a necessary destination for the project. Conference Of Trees is an otherwise pretty excellent and ambitious record that just needed to fully get back to nature.
01. Approach In A Breeze
02. Transparent Tickle Shining Glace
03. Holding The Oak
04. When We Talk
05. Roots Making Family
06. The Crown Territory
07. Supernova Space Time Drift
08. Silentium Larix
09. Pius In Tacet