David John Sheppard

Vertical Land

If – as the tired cliché goes – writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then what is making music about landscape? As it happens, it appears to be – for some, at least – a significant source of inspiration. Over the last couple of years, two of the records to which I’ve regularly returned have been William Tyler’s Behold The Spirit and Land Observations’ The Grand Tour. The former found Lambchop’s youthful, (sometimes former) guitarist – inspired by historical books read as he travelled the land’s often empty spaces while on tour – conjuring up pictures of the mythical American west: its sparse, dusty plains and deep, dizzying valleys; its drifting tumbleweed and wide, cloud-drenched horizons; and, perhaps most importantly, its ceaseless cultural intermingling. The latter – recorded by James Brooks, a visual artist, and former frontman for underrated Mute signings Appliance – sketched the trek across Europe from London, often undertaken by aristocratic graduates in the 18th century as a rite of passage, taking in the flatlands of the Low Countries, through the Alps via the heights of the Brenner Pass, before arriving at its destination in the crucible of civilisation, Rome. Both albums, despite being entirely wordless, effortlessly manage to invoke a sense of place that is as eloquent as it is bewitching. Both albums, too – like an impressive view – stand up to repeated encounters.

To these, one can now add David John Sheppard’s wonderful Vertical Land, inspired by his travels two years ago through the mountainous landscapes of Norway, Greece, South Africa and Wales. It’s far from the first musical foray Sheppard – who’s perhaps best known as the author of the Brian Eno biography, On Some Faraway Beach – has made. Nonetheless, it’s the first legitimate solo album by this serial collaborator, who’s worked in different guises for many years as, amongst others: Phelan Sheppard (with Keiron Phelan); Snow Palms (with Christopher Leary); and as both The Wisdom Of Harry and Ellis Island Sound (with former Weather Prophet Pete Astor). It’s also perhaps the most alluring he’s made, refining the rhythmic, atmospheric and melodic characteristics of those other projects to charming, captivating effect.

Like Tyler and Brooks before him, Sheppard’s well aware of the hypnotic force of slow, subtle change in seemingly repetitive cycles, and Vertical Land owes a debt – though a small one – to both Steve Reich’s aesthetic and the motorik sense of propulsive energy favoured by krautrock, albeit more delicately employed. The ensuing sense of undulating progress perfectly suits the envisioned feeling of distance travelled, with the slow passing of ridges and slopes evoked by the leisurely development of musical themes, and more vertiginous mountain territory summoned by a sophisticated sense of dynamics. One can almost imagine the equaliser displays in his studio mimicking the craggy, rugged environments his music describes. There’s a sense, too, of unfamiliarity in Sheppard’s choice of instrumentation, which – like Reich’s – leans heavily on mallet instruments, though some are more conventional than others: he hammers on treated guitar and piano strings as well as more traditional gear like marimbas and glockenspiels, building up and layering loops for the foundation of his compositions, as though governed by the principles of contemporary electronic music.

All the same, there’s nothing especially inaccessible about the results of Sheppard’s approach, even if the scenery that provoked it may have sometimes been remote. Its expansive, cinematic scope draws one in gracefully from the off, with ‘Thumbnail Sketch Of Infinity”s softly fluttering flutes and marimba decorating a quietly throbbing bass rumble, while the rustling arpeggios of ‘Horizon Climbs’ and ‘Mountain Time’ boast melodies that swell like a sunrise. Leaning gently on the rhythms of Ellis Island Sound’s last release, Regions, ‘Seconds Minutes Hours’ suggests more temperate climates, with unanticipated bursts of saxophone and hints of the hang drum favoured by Portico Quartet, and ‘Spring Forward Fall Back’ twists and turns delightfully, its prepared piano inevitably echoing Hauschka’s work. ‘Vortex On A String’, meanwhile, is more upbeat, its percussive use of stringed instruments pressing it ever forward, and the arrival of an electric piano coincidentally recalling another instrumental act, Tortoise, at the height of their powers on the similarly geographically inclined ‘The Suspension Bridge At Iguazú Falls’ (from 1998’s supreme TNT).

Indicative of Sheppard’s unusual approach, however, is the fact that the two title tracks, ‘Vertical Land 1’ and ‘2’, are perhaps the most subdued of those on offer here, the former as refreshing as a meadow stream, the latter a bucolic, almost otherworldly, dub-influenced piece so light as to be barely present. Sheppard’s journey is not about speed and drama, whatever name he may have given the two pieces, but more the unfolding sense of wonder that often accompanies breath-taking vistas, a joy in the details one finds in what can at first appear simultaneously overwhelming and unremarkable. Like Tyler and Brooks, Sheppard unveils his pleasure in what he sees around us gradually, his final destination ultimately unimportant so long as the quest is enriching. This is a trip that comes seriously recommended.

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