By: Will Pinfold
Richard J Birkin | website | facebook | twitter |
Released on March 11, 2016 via Reveal Records
Vigils is an evocative title, suggesting an album redolent of watchful solitude, heightened awareness and sensitivity; something hushed, calm and intimate. Despite Richard Birkin’s minimalist credentials though, his achievement with Vigils is that he remains absolutely true to that title’s associations while producing music that is often ravishingly beautiful with some frankly fairly lush arrangements with strings (no less than Iskra Strings in fact), chimes and occasional guitar around a core of relatively simple but intensely atmospheric piano pieces.
At the heart of the album are the five title tunes, numbered, somewhat perversely, as Vigils I, II, III, V and VI. Although wordless, these pieces – composed in solitude in an old mill – have an almost palpable theme of (not necessarily unhappy) isolation and remoteness that reverberates throughout the album as a whole. And it does feel like a whole; Vigils ebbs and flows so seamlessly that its extremes aren’t particularly noticeable at first listen; but upon examination they are striking.
‘Vigil II’ is Richard Birkin at his most skeletally sparse; a short, hauntingly melancholy piece, consisting of little more than a muted central piano melody and some odd clockwork-sounding ambient noises. At the other extreme is ‘Atomhog’; timeless but almost imperceptibly modern-sounding, its billowing strings recalling the glistening, expansive weltschmerz of Michael Nyman’s Gattaca soundtrack. At the centre of the album is the pivotal ‘Moonbathing’, which encompasses the album’s musical themes and atmospheres, built around skeletal acoustic guitar, but building into one of the album’s more richly textured pieces and the only one with a vocal part. Although, to an extent ‘Moonbathing’ interrupts the musical purity of the album’s flow, the vocal itself is perfectly judged. A haunting, slightly Thom Yorke-ish performance, it reinforces the feeling of calm, quizzical sadness which emanates from the whole album; it feels like the composer’s vigils have ultimately left him with more questions than answers, mystery and wonder, rather than clarity.
As with Birkin’s last work, For Spoken Words, the minimalism at the heart of Vigils feels intuitive and emotional, rather than mathematical and impersonal; and when augmented by the stunning string arrangements the effect is comparable with Max Richter at his most soulful. The album is beautifully recorded too – and it needs to be; Birkin is looking inwards (or at least it feels that way as a listener), and without the tranquil clarity of sound, the minute details and intense emotional depths lurking beneath the smooth surface wouldn’t be so beautifully laid bare to the ear. Vigils is haunted and haunting; new and familiar, comforting and desolate; by any standards an outstandingly accomplished piece of work.