Neil Cowley Trio’s sixth album is an intriguing affair. A concept album based around a provoking tale of one man, Lincoln, his story is told through a combination of audio, literary, visual, interactive and live components. “This is a project I’ve been working towards for a long time” says Cowley. “It takes in themes of guilt, loss and longing with a few twists along the way. It’s been utterly immersive yet incredibly exciting. And yes, I’m not ashamed to say it, it’s a concept album!” And so, as a brief outline, what we have here is this: A diary that has been unfolding over the last few months on Tumbir, with short story instalments. There’s an LP sized book which is a beautifully crafted visual and literary representation of the protagonist’s story, brought to life with full colour pictures by DC Comics illustrator and Pan’s Labyrinth film concept artist Sergio Sandoval. In addition to this there’s also an interactive website – spaceboundapes.com – which acts as an immersive experience that allows the visitor to take centre stage; a must for pianists given the special code provided in the deluxe piano book. But of course, the centrepiece at the core of “Spacebound Apes” is the music itself; eleven original compositions written by Cowley, taking inspiration from Arthur C Clarke’s 1956 sci-fi book ‘The City and the Stars’.
Pianist Cowley is joined by his long-term band mates, drummer Evan Jenkins and bassist Rex Horan. The album was recorded at Cooper Hall, a studio and cinema set deep in the Somerset countryside, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey running on permanent rotation. And the music itself most certainly has a cinematic feel to it; an atmospheric soundtrack to a tale of one man’s journey.
Cowley’s music has never fitted comfortably into any one genre, his passionate mix of classical, jazz and chill-out furthering his standing as an innovative musician following on from his earlier work with some of the most successful bands of the day, including Brand New Heavies and Zero7. For me personally, I’ve often felt his own projects had moments of brilliance tempered by a feeling that there was something missing, something so close to brilliance yet something that ultimately left me feeling a little underwhelmed. And so in some ways, it’s fair to say I approached this release with a strange combination of excitement and caution.
The good news is that from the off I was completely drawn into the whole concept of ‘Spacebound Apes”. And on first listen, my initial thoughts – which I have to say still stand – were that it felt like I was listening to one of the best Brian Eno albums I had never heard. Generally speaking, “Spacebound Apes” is a largely ambient affair, interspersed with some high energy 80’s-like electro-pop. Later, when I took the time to read the album credits, I saw that Brian Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams made contributions on guitar and fx. So maybe it’s not a coincidence that I was thinking the music had Eno as a major influence, or at least featured in some kind of thought process along the way. The whole concept works very well, it’s lavish and ambitious nature a credit to all concerned.
Taking the music in isolation, repeated listening is rewarded with hidden depths of beauty. It’s easy sometimes to listen to a seemingly simple, subtle piece of music and to only scratch the surface of it because of its apparent simplicity. Cowley uses his skill as a composer to create beautifully imagined soundscapes. The haunting, ethereal qualities of tracks like “Weightless”, “Grace” and “Death of Amggdala” are simply stunning. Conversely, I also enjoyed the quirkiness and change of tempo on the tracks “The City and the Stars” and “The Sharks of Competition”. There’s a highly original feel that combines an offbeat sensitivity with a stark eeriness on “Echo Nebula” and “Duty to the last”, and the closing track “The Return of Lincoln” enjoys all the filmic qualities of an ambient, lost in space mini masterpiece.
Perhaps Neil Cowley Trio’s most triumphant project to date, “Spacebound Apes” is a very enjoyable, immersive listen. But for all the high praise I gladly give to this release, I’m still of the mind that there’s still a little something missing…maybe, maybe not. One thing is for sure though, I keep putting the album back on for yet another listen, and I’m still really enjoying it. And I can’t wait to see the live shows.
Friday 21st October 2016 – Turner Sims Southampton SO17 1BJ
Thursday 27th October 2016 – Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington N1 2UN
Friday 4th November 2016 – St John the Evangelist Church, 109A Iffley Road, Oxford, OX4 1EH
* Full UK Tour spring 2017 *