CFCF & Jean-Michel Blais Cascades

[Arts & Crafts; 2017]

Styles: ambient, neoclassical, easy critiquing
Others: CFCF, Jean-Michel Blais

Even as someone looking forward to Cascades, a joint album by CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais, I managed to miss its release for weeks. With no overarching narrative or significant context to relay, there’s not much to market. It might as well have arrived as an unexplained radio burst from Planet Montréal, a direct feed from the sort of musical mind-melds that one assumes all artists partake in but which rarely see release.

All of this is to say that Cascades justifies itself, successfully, on its musical merits — nothing more, nothing less. From the cover art onward, the mood is the same light-hearted exploration that marks the best-aging entries in the Windham Hill catalog — two composers excited at the prospect of refracting their older pieces through the lens of new instruments. On the piano, Blais plays the straight man to CFCF’s (née Michael Silver) atmospheric synth accents, the keys lending a percussive and positively Glassian edge to tunes like “Two Mirrors” (originally from Radiance & Submission) that might originally have lost their way amidst a wash of un-intrusive loops. Space is explored via the silence between piano notes rather than by infinite, reverberating expansion.

But the album doesn’t live exclusively in the understated. “Hypocrite,” the sole brand new track, is quite the opposite. Classical music and EDM share an affinity for crescendo; if the genre’s attitudes toward one another weren’t so diametrically opposed, we would likely see more intermingling. It’s an almost comical sum-of-its-parts realization of how one might have imagined the Blais/Silver collaboration to turn out, having read only the press releases accompanying either artist’s most recent solo release. It’s a joy to listen to, short-circuiting “good taste” to deliver a shot of “why not?” indulgence that only adds to the mounting evidence that trance is on the verge of a well-deserved moment of critical and popular re-consideration.

Cascades concludes with a sublime rework of John Cage’s 1948 prepared piano piece “In a Landscape,” the album’s high-water mark for integrating the two artists’ respective contributions into a new, unified sound. Faithfulness to the original doesn’t prevent this new version from feeling like progression; it’s perhaps in a different sense than “Hypocrite,” but a step forward is a step forward, whether it’s from genre expectations or a known piece of source material. What is a synthesizer but an exquisitely-prepared piano?

“In a Landscape (Rework)” is a modern realization of the spirit of the original composition, made possible by the technological advances in between. By the same token, the album’s highest points come from forcing an artist to fill in the gaps left by someone else’s presentation of their own material. For CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais, it’s essentially a self-improvement exercise, one with every reason to exist but no particular cause for release. For the listener, it’s something too rare these days: an exceedingly pleasant listen, unburdened by the weight of being anything more.

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