A couple years back, Max Richter came out of the blue with his The Blue Notebooks album and pretty much knocked me for a loop. A splendid mixture of modern classical and electronic music (plus some spoken word bits from Tilda Swinton), the release easily made my year-end list and was good enough that it made me seek out his more elusive debut album to get a little more background on his artistry. As it turns out, Richter is more than just an accomplished solo artist, having worked with everyone from the Future Sound Of London to Roni Size and even Vashti Bunyan on production and collaboration.
Songs From Before is his latest full length album and it sounds like a very logical sequel to The Blue Notebooks. In fact, it has so much in common with that release that it feels more like the second chapter in a larger over-arching saga, than a large step forward into new territory. The lush string arrangements are back, along with some spoken word bits that filter in (Robert Wyatt reading short passages from Haruki Murakami this time out). If there's any difference, it's that more overt electronics play less of a roll in this recording, although Richter does incorporate more lo-fi electronic touches through the use of shortwave radio noises.
The simply titled "Song" opens the album on a strong note, as some repetitive organ melodies mix with some subtle strings while distant percussion sends deep reverberations through the mix. "Flowers For Yula" opens with some disembodied radio chatter and a few passages from Wyatt before slow swells of strings rise up from the crackling depths and crest without ever getting very loud. "Harmonium" may very well be the most haunting track on the entire release, again starting with a couple evocative sentences from Wyatt before some deep, filtered swirls of what may very well be the title instrument are offset with sparkling bells and chimes. It's a gorgeous track that works wonders at high volumes.
The latter two-thirds of the album is a bit more spotty, and after listening to the release a bunch of times, I still have a hard time pin-pointing why. There are a lot of shorter tracks (like "Ionosphere" and "Lullaby") that add nothing to the release, while a familiar melodic theme is used in "Autumn Music 1," "Autumn Music 2," and the album closer of "From The Rue Vilin." Considering Songs From Before is only about thirty-seven minutes long, it's probably safe to say that the effort suffers a bit from being really good on the front end and then not offering up as much in variety from there out. Richter is still a heck of a composer, and the twelve-track release is always pretty at the very least, but unfortunately it seems like a slight step backwards considering his previous album.