Leif: 9 Airs Album Review

The music of Leif Knowles has a distinctly pastoral touch: an air of dewy grass, green glades, mist burning from rolling hills. Although mostly made with synthesizers, Leif’s records are infused with the sounds of rain, birdsong and wind chimes. Even some of its synthetic elements suggest natural phenomena: hissing white noise rustles like reeds; bass notes split the air as forcefully and unexpectedly as thunderclaps. Some of these atmospheric qualities are no doubt linked to the Bristol-based musician’s many years as a resident of the Freerotation festival in Wales, where DJs spin avant-garde dance music to an intimate crowd gathered in the grounds of Baskerville Hall, a historic country house nestled between fields and woods.

Even in the years when he mainly concentrated on the dance floor, Leif’s music cast a wide net: on the title track of his debut album, in 2013, he sampled a decades-old harp composition by his father about Dinas Oleu, a picturesque monument in Snowdonia. In recent years, he has increasingly distanced himself from the club convention. His 2019 album loom dream delved into dubby, slow-motion grooves that reward horizontal listening; last year even quieter Music for screen tests, a 54-minute uninterrupted suite, was intended as the soundtrack for a selection of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests— short moving image portraits in which the subjects would sit as still as possible in front of Warhol’s film camera for about three minutes. Commissioned for an exhibition at London’s Barbican, the pieces are a blend of gentle patience and nervous rhythms, beautifully capturing the unsteady silence of Warhol’s films.

9 broadcasts continues along the lines of those two albums, although it feels less cohesive: no overt themes hold it together, and it has a wider stylistic gamut, from intricate IDM to light-hearted drones. Calm but rarely completely beatless, it takes a sort of soft middle ground – neither dance music, precise, nor textbook ambient. In some ways it feels like a collection of disconnected parts, although that’s part of its quirky charm too. It’s a calm, humble record with a restless, exploratory feel – relaxed music, but with an emphasis on from.

Acoustic melodies provide 9 broadcasts‘ throughline, at least in the most impressive numbers. “Seven Hour Flight to Nowhere” opens the album with soaring chimes and the razor-sharp guard of masked harp strums. The sparkling string structures are reminiscent of Four Tet’s frequent use of the instrument, but Leif’s soaring rhythms have a looser, hesitant feel. The piano takes the lead on “Hiding in Plain Sight”, a fuzzy approach to British techno where all the bones are exchanged for feathers and blades of grass. And “Low D” kicks off with an airy whirl of low D flute — another instrument from his father’s repertoire — before turning into a coiled, breakbeat-inspired rhythm, like a strange amalgamation of medieval folk and drum’n’ bass.

Those songs make up 9 broadcastsrhythmic peaks. To the extreme are some of the record’s most captivating pieces. A mournful whirlwind of voices, “Hold Gem Cut” evokes an almost occult power, as if the wind is sharing wordless secrets. And “Wake Up Now” is a lullaby-like piano étude in which the squeak of the chair is clearly audible under increasingly distorted overdubbed layers. The lo-fi quality reminds me of Sonic Youth’s rumbling “Providence”; as it gets louder, it becomes hard and brittle, bearing its damage like dented armor. This is not just milquetoast ambient, but an expression of something darker and more complicated.

The rest of the numbers are somewhere in the middle between these two poles. “Every Weather” periodically interrupts one of the album’s softest loops with a jarring explosion of drums, like strobes flashing in the club. The organ-like tones of “Emotional Risk Assessment” are gracefully melodic but also curiously aimless; the song is six minutes long, but it might as well be 60 minutes without feeling much different. The album closes with “Tapping on a Hollow Body,” which is just that: a low-key rhythm that sounds like it’s been slapped onto the body of an acoustic guitar, as plucked chords melt into a watercolor wash of reverberation around it. Leif ends the song in the most modest way possible: there’s a squeak of fingertips on coiled steel strings as the reverb recedes; then a car engine turns, we hear what tires on gravel can be, and the whole thing fades to silence. Even as he disappears, Leif excels at imbuing his music with a sense of place.


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