There is a clear pastoral glow to Leif Knowles’ music: an air of dewless grass, green clearings, fog burning off from rolling hills. Although most are made with synthesizers, Leif’s records are imbued with the sound of rain, birdsong and wind chimes. Even some of his synthetic elements suggest natural phenomena: hissing white noise hisses like reeds; bass tones split the air as violently and unexpectedly as thunderclap. Some of these atmospheric qualities are undoubtedly linked to the Bristol-based musician’s many years as a resident of Wales’ Freerotation Festival, where DJs spin avant-garde dance music to an intimate crowd gathered on the grounds of Baskerville Hall, a historic mansion located. between fields and forests.
Even in the years when he was primarily focused on the dance floor, Leif’s music threw a wide net: On the title track of his debut album, in 2013 he sampled a decades-old harp composition by his father about Dina’s Oleu, a picturesque landmark. and Snowdonia. Over the last few years, he has increasingly moved away from the club convention. His album from 2019 Loom Dream dived into dubby, slow-motion grooves that reward horizontal listening; last year is even more peaceful Music for screen tests, an unbroken 54-minute suite, was intended to soundtrack a selection of Andy Warhols Screen tests– short moving-picture portraits in which subjects would sit as still as possible in front of Warhol’s film camera for three minutes or so. Commissioned for an exhibition at the London Barbican, the pieces are a mixture of gentle patience and nervous rhythms that beautifully capture the unstable silence of Warhol’s films.
9 broadcasts continues in the style of these two albums, though it feels less cohesive: No obvious themes hold it together, and it runs a wider stylistic spectrum, from intricate IDMs to airy drones. Calm, but rarely completely beatless, it occupies a kind of soft middle ground – neither dance music, precise, nor textbook ambient. In some ways, it feels like a collection of separate parts, though it’s also part of its idiosyncratic charm. It’s a quiet, modest record with a restless, exploratory feel – chillout music, but with an emphasis on out.
Acoustic melodies provide 9 broadcasts‘throughout, at least in his most commanding songs. “Seven Hour Flight to Nowhere” opens the album with floating chimes and the knife-sharp whipping of rear-masked harp picks. The sparkling string textures are reminiscent of Four Tet’s frequent use of the instrument, but Leif’s undulating rhythms have a looser, more tentative feel. The piano takes the lead on “Hiding in Plain Sight”, a downy approach of British techno with all the bones replaced with feathers and blades of grass. And “Low D” begins with an airy vortex of low D flute – another instrument from his father’s repertoire – before being transformed into a rolled-up, breakbeat-inspired rhythm, like a strange fusion of medieval folk and drum’n’bass.
The songs make up 9 broadcasts‘rhythmic peaks. At the extreme are some of the record’s most captivating pieces. A mournful vortex of voices, “Hold Gem Cut” evokes an almost occult power, as if the wind shared wordless secrets. And “Wake Up Now” is a lullaby-like piano tune, where the creaking of the chair can be clearly heard under increasingly distorted dubbed layers. Its lo-fi quality reminds me of Sonic Youth’s roaring “Providence”; as it gets taller, it becomes hard and brittle and carries its damage like a dented armor. This is not just milquetoast ambient, but an expression of something darker and more complicated.
The rest of the songs lie somewhere in between these two poles. “Every Weather” periodically interrupts one of the album’s most dulcet loops with a mind-boggling explosion of drums, like strobes flashing in the club. The organ-like tones of “Emotional Risk Assessment” are gracefully melodic, but also strangely pointless; the number lasts six minutes, but it might as well go in 60 without feeling very different. The album concludes with “Tapping on a Hollow Body”, which is just that: a low-key rhythm that sounds as if it has been rapped out on the body by an acoustic guitar, while climbing chords merge into a watercolor wash of reverberation around the. Leif ends the song in the most unassuming way possible: There is a squeak of fingertips on coiled steel strings as the reverberation recedes; then a car’s engine spins, we hear what may be tires on gravel, and it all fades to silence. Even when he’s disappearing, Leif excels at adding a sense of place to his music.
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