REVIEW: Hannah Peel – Fir Wave

Hannah Peel is a dizzyingly prolific and accomplished musician. Just trying to keep track of all the projects she has been involved in – whether as musician, composer, or arranger– is enough to make you need a lie down. Those different strings to her bow all make an appearance here, but the finished product is impressively cohesive, despite this. Operating in the album-length electronica space occupied by people like Jon Hopkins and Four Tet, Peel finds room to indulge the different elements of her musical persona within that template. But it never feels muddled or confused, or like she is trying to show off. It is testament to the completeness and confidence of her artistic vision. 

There is huge variety on offer here. Some tracks, like ‘Emergence in Nature’, with its pulsating bass line and skittering percussion, lean heavily to the dance music end of the spectrum. You could imagine them filling the dancefloor at a more chin-stroking club night. ‘Wind Shadow’, on the other hand, with its lack of percussion and refusal to commit to a tune is a Brian Eno-esque slice of ambient that begins the record by slowly luring you in. Songs like ‘Carbon Cycle’ and ‘Fir Wave’, meanwhile, swerve more towards the soundtrack end of Peel’s repertoire, crafting rich, beautiful soundscapes for the listener to get lost in.

Despite the obvious skill on show, what is notable about this record it its restraint. Seemingly operating with a ‘less is more’ philosophy, she makes use of deceptively simple, repeated motifs throughout, letting them play out until they embed themselves in the listener’s head. This remains the case as she shifts through her different musical identities. ‘Emergence in Nature’ begins with icy, crystalline synths that bring to mind Kraftwerk or New Order, but in its home straight the synths are joined by a joyous and propulsive burst of what sounds (to my untutored ear!) like bassoon and strings. In fact, the organic and the artificial sit comfortably alongside each other throughout the record.

The restraint is also clear in the way that the sounds are given room to breathe. It’s a record full of space. This space has a profound effect on the listening experience, with individual parts of the instrumentation growing to fill it. Moments like the finger-clicking percussion on ‘Evocative’ or the wordless voices holding long, drawn out notes on ‘Patterned Formation’ assume real beauty as a result.

Words are noticeably absent from the record. On a few tracks, voices (or synthesised ones at least) appear, but they are only ever there to provide melody, never lyrics. There is a sense in which they aren’t needed. Peel is able to convey a range of emotions and ideas without them, following her classical forebears in instead letting her instruments do the talking. The result is seven tracks that are evocative but which, without words forcing things, allow greater space for the listener to have a more personal response to the music.

It’s a cliché to say that music takes the listener on a journey, but all the best cliches have a grain of truth to them. This album really does take you on a journey. There are songs that make you want to dance, ones that evoke emotions almost too perfectly, and songs that you just want to let wash over you in a wave of gorgeous sound. It’s one of the most beautiful records I’ve heard this year, and one that deserves to be listened to on a good pair of headphones, alone, in the small hours. Treat yourself.

Words by Will Collins

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