Review of The Gamble Album by Nonkeen

1,000 years ago in what was Northern Europe you would spend the winter covered in pelts, listening to the animals in their pen, sleeping on the ground of your thatched roof house with everyone else. Sometimes in the long, dark months you would go outside and see if the frosty ground had cracked, then look up at the stars, a smear-like ribbon of lights so bright you could cast your shadow against them.

Nonkeen The Gamble Album

Now we know the answer to everything of course, but our ancestors posessed something else, an ability - a necessity - to commune with the elements and nature. Thirty years ago the music which accompanied a modern day quest for this nirvana was known sneerily as new age, suitable only for those still living in the ashes of late 60's hippy counter culture. In the twenty first century it's image has undergone something of a makeover, it's beatless vogue made accessible by the likes of Jon Hopkins and Sam Sheppard, not now so much celestial flotsam as locked in, ecstatic grace from the very edges of clubland.

If there is such a thing as a poster boy for this movement, German Nils Frahm would  probably be a subject. Rising to prominence firstly via 2011's Felt, he's continued to defy categorisation since and also produced work with fellow traveloguer Olafur Arnalds. The history of his latest project the nonkeen is suitably prosaic: fellow members Frederic Gmeiner and Sebastian Singwald are childhood friends from the the country's pre and post reformation eras, with whom he made tapes as adolescents using field recordings and found sounds. Eventually coalescing into a live iteration, they split up in 1997, after a bizarre in-performance accident left them vowing to never work together again.

Reunited in Berlin a decade later the trio began to work using their old modus operandi: The Gamble is the result, albeit for some it may feel like a nightmare. It's a record with no centre: some of the pieces flow, some do not, some are brief - cosmic sounding opener The Invention Mother - some are not, progressing at the sort of pace which makes a Sunday afternoon feel like being sucked into a black hole. Of course there are some obvious precedents - Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Harold Budd - but the willowy Rhodes of Saddest Continent On Earth, along with it's skeletal, out of time guitar, defy most conventions about layering sounds. Excorcising a perogative to expriment, Frahm & co. do quite the opposite to the expected at every turn, with for instance the almost motorik drums of The Ceramic People casting jazz shadows on a wall of improvisation.

For all this is a collection of suitcase recordings, The Gamble is not the hardscrabble static and discombobulated ether you might expect. Chasing God Through Palmyra is in contrast remarkably syncopated, a mutant bossanova undertow etched with Deus Ex Machina samples and a shuffling, almost listless kind of charm. More than anything, the formerly redundant but now revived technology - scrambled tapes, analogue synths - is used with a minimalist touch, the jamming vibe conjuring up shapes as on The Beautiful Mess which are akin to the lost industrialism of twentieth century, whilst Capstan's vintage randomness is oddly soothing.

For Frahm, everything seems here to be perceived as a means to perform in a series of conundra. Originally schooled as a classicist, he uses The Gamble to reject it's conventions, working on phrases and ideas that come in and out of focus like shapes on a far horizon. Only once do the composites channel into something familiar: re:turn! Eddies like a half frozen river, each echoing pulse a God-like, awe inspiring beat of the Aurora twining in the dark blue sky above. Frahm once said "Music is about music. Not about life and love". In that moment the nonkeen make it about both, and about nothing at all other than freezing night air, and the unknown stories only the heavens can tell.

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