Just six years into his career as a producer and DJ, Leon Vynehall already has a lot to live up to. His two double EP releases, namely Rojus—released in 2016 on Running Back—and, in particular, the brilliant Music For The Uninvited—released in 2014 on Martyn's 3024— set the bar incredibly high. These and subsequent 12” releases earned Vynehall near universal accolades and a place in most credible end of year charts. Leon Vynehall was one to watch. Therefore, anticipation for this release, Nothing Is Still—his first album proper and the start of his relationship with new label Ninja Tune—has been significant. Does this album meet expectations? Well, that depends on what you’re expecting.
Upon first listen, this album will disappoint those searching for the clever and inventive dancefloor tracks for which Vynehall has become most loved. There isn’t actually anything here which could be recognized as house music. Its absence is a lot to get over, even more so given the highlights of this nature present on Vynehall’s aforementioned long-players. But, once you do get over it—and it may take several listens—Nothing Is Still is an intriguing engagement with an ambitious artist clearly still in development. More Phillip Glass or Steve Reich than it is Phillip Lauer or Steve Hurley, it is a contemplative exercise in electronica wholly focussed on the story it is trying to tell. And, if you afford it the patience, it does so charmingly.
That story is essentially a tale from Vynehall's own family and it’s evident in the care he's taken with the project that it's one close to his heart. Long before he was born, Vynehall's grandparents decided to move from south-east England to New York City. This album, plus the extensive novella which accompanies it, are essentially a partially reimagined travelogue of their experiences on the journey and within that alien culture.
We start on the coast of England, samples of seagulls and calm waters denoting closeness to the shore. Before long, a swell of strings rise preparing the listener for the ambitiousness of what's to come; deep plunges of synths evoke the wild, open sea and when top end percussion is introduced, it immediately conjures images of sustained motion. The journey has begun.
On second track “Movements,” we are placed comfortably within Ninja Tune territory; beautiful electronica with more than a nod to jazz in its swinging rhythm. Multiple brass lines give way to a lovely piano solo. The sampled guitar of “Birds On The Tarmac” sounds promising; are we edging into modern classical or even ECM territory? Unfortunately, the short track doesn't develop. It's a shame. Vynehall proved so competent working within a krautrock framework on his Midnight on Rainbow Road release, and you're urging him to take you in that direction here. Or at least to something you can get your teeth into.
Many of the tracks here are bookended by samples and, to his credit, Vynehall does create a rich mental picture of the story with their use. But on “Julia," the sampled monologue isn’t particularly engaging and yet the music again defers. Coupled with "Birds On The Tarmac"’s non-start, there's a lull in the album here.
Interest returns with “Drinking It In Again," its sampled vocalizations reminding a little of Tom Waits. But it's the next track, “Trouble,” where things really liven up. Split into several sections, it depicts an unpleasant encounter with authorities while sightseeing close to the Canadian border. When the punching bass is introduced midway through, you can imagine it signifying the violence of the scenario. The album's preceding single “Envelopes” comes next. It’s a well-chosen lead track: atmospheric and barren to start, with a slow tempo hip-hop beat and backward samples, before its pleasing synths give in to a growing cascade of strings. There is no end to their rise; the comedown you might expect never materializes. It feels like a lack of resolution and it’s rather gripping. With this unexpected direction of strings, Vynehall pleasingly wrong-foots us. It’s reminiscent of how he did so on “Inside The Deku Tree.”
Halfway through “English Oak,” the track morphs into an engaging techno construction, not unlike some of Carl Craig's Landcruising-era soundscapes. It drops back into an orchestral base before tantalizing with a sampled string sound, perhaps a kora or other harp? It is a beautiful but all too brief moment which, again, you're willing Vynehall to expand upon. But this is frustratingly offered as merely a glimpse—a fragment of the wider story Vynehall is trying to tell. A cathedral of cleverly intertwining samples stuns on “Ice Cream,” before the string-laden and saddening ultimate track “It Breaks” signals the adventure's end.
It's a pleasant but not altogether engaging finale. You're left questioning if this has really been such an adventure at all. For Vynehall's grandparents? Certainly. For Vynehall himself, in his meticulous research and emotional attachment to the story? No doubt. But for the listener?
Leon Vynehall is still a relatively young man. Less than a decade into his career, on Nothing Is Still, he has embarked on an incredibly ambitious project that shows an altogether different side of his music making and artistic expression. It is an exciting installment, not least because it opens up possibilities for him within several different mediums in the future. And considering his track record in the curation of events, there's no doubt that this significant talent would prove a success in whichever direction he chooses to apply himself. His grandparents’ story is served well here, subtly and with Vynehall's admirable aim to never take center stage over the telling of the tale. Though it remains to be seen if, given his past proficiencies, fans might have hoped he would have actually shown more of himself on his debut artist album. As an artistic endeavor, it is a laudable milestone for Vynehall. But as an album that warrants repeated listens, over many years? That will be for fans to decide.
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)
Ninja Tune will release Nothing Is Still on June 15, with "English Oak," "Movements," and "Envelopes," streaming in full below—or here for EU readers due to temporary GDPR restrictions.