Nils Frahm

Morning BlissStreichelfisch
Said And DoneThe Bells
For - Peter - Toilet Brushes - MoreSpaces
Four HandsSolo



Contributor: Rick J Leach

It’s only happened before with two or three artists. Four, if I include Courtney Barnett. Which I should really, even though that’s only been possible with her in the last month or so.

When you’ve been listening to music for as long as I have (too long and to the point of obsession as the rest of my family would say), then it’s bound to happen every now and again. Statistically it’s highly probable. Over forty odd years of music with thousands of tracks; probably tens of thousands of tracks and thousands of albums, singles, cassettes, CDs and mp3s. Hours and hours; months and years of music.

There would always be a few stray records that not only make you do the usual thing of raving about them to your similarly musically obsessed friends, telling them that “they must really hear this” or “this is the greatest thing ever”, but you’d copy them on to cassettes (and latterly CDRs) and press them into their hands, imploring them to listen to it at the earliest possible opportunity.

You’d hope that you weren’t wrong and they’d get back to you the very day to tell you that you were spot on and it was indeed the best thing they’d ever heard. We’ve all done it I’m sure, swapped tapes and CDs, and been surprised when the response has been a bit flat, a bit “uh, it’s ok, I suppose” or even, “ that’s utter drivel, what did you see in that?” (A taped version of Sigue Sigue Sputnik provoked that very reaction in one of my friends).

So giving tapes and CDRs is one thing but rarely, very rarely, do you find yourself doing something else, something different, something that may only happen two or three times in a lifetime of listening to music.
And that’s buying the album and giving it away; giving it as a present. Not just a taped copy of a burned CDR, but the real thing. Not because it’s someone’s birthday or because it’s Christmas or some special occasion, but because that record is so good and so special in itself. You’ll make the effort to go out and get it and spend money on buying three or four copies, to give it away. Because you know it’s worth it; worth every penny and more. It’s because this sort of thing only happens two or three times during a lifetime of listening to music.

With me, it’s been The Pixies Surfer Rosa, the Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares album and now Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Everyone will have their own choices; the once-a-decade records that deserve to be bought to give away, those records that you know will make a difference.

There may well be another album joining this list. There is another album joining this list; Nils Frahm’s Spaces.

What is so very special about this record? Why does it deserve to be up there on the podium with those other three?

Well, like the Pixies, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares and Courtney Barnett’s album, Spaces is one of those records – one of those records that completely and utterly surprise you.

You may think that you’ve heard everything possible or, if not everything, then most of the possible permutations of most things. But then a record such as Spaces turns up, out of the blue, to refresh your jaded palate, blowing away any traces of cynicism and restoring your faith in music once again. This is why – exactly why – you love music so much and why it’s so very important and vital.

I realise that at this point, I’ve rambled on a bit and not really mentioned Nils Frahm himself very much. I suppose I should.

Nils Frahm is a 32 year-old German composer, musician and producer. He looks nothing like a rock star, nor does he look like a classical composer or performer. He simply looks like an “ordinary person”. And to me that is a very good thing indeed. An ordinary person making extraordinary art.

Trying to explain exactly what sort of music he makes and what genre his music may drop into, is a bit like trying to nail jelly down. I suppose I could say that he mixes classical music with electronic music, but that sounds so crap and proggy, as well as being simply wrong.

You could call it ambient. You could call it piano music. Keyboards seem to be his favourite instruments, but you never know. He may well take up the banjo at some point.

You could stick his music in an experimental pigeonhole. But that would give it a tinge of being an unlistenable racket, which it definitely is not. I should point out that, as far as I’m concerned, “unlistenable racket” is not a pejorative term. Some of my favourite music could rightly be bracketed that way.

Nils Frahm’s music is melodic, classical, atonal, tuneful, experimental, happy, exciting, different, unexpected, quiet, loud, gentle, angry, thoughtful, minimalist, abstract, mathematical, funny; all of this and more.

I’m sure that people much more well versed than I in regard to music theory and modern classical music can point out the clear influences on Frahm’s music; where it all comes from, what it all means and what references there are to other composers. I have no real clue at all. What I do know is that when I listen to Spaces, I know that this is really something truly special. What I didn’t know, when I first heard it (the first Nils Frahm record that I heard), was that track by track it gets better and better and you listen to it all. It’s a record that when you hear track one you think to yourself “this is pretty good” and then track two is even better, track three takes it to another level and so on, and by the time you’ve heard the whole thing you are amazed at the brilliance of it all and wonder how on earth anyone can make something that is so, to use an overused word, beautiful.

If I was going to start listening to Nils Frahm’s music from scratch again, then I would begin with Spaces, even though it is one of his most recent albums, and a live album, released in 2013. Track one, An Aborted Beginning, collapses from dubby electronic echoing into laughter and applause after only a minute and a half. It’s a good start. I’m not going to run through all the tracks (though I’m sorely tempted). However, Says, the second track, builds and builds from a very quiet and simple progression into such complexity and ear-splitting intensity that every single time I listen to it I want to put it on repeat. It reminds me of waves crashing on a beach, or space, or sleep, or dreaming or … something like you’ve never heard before.

Special mention must be made of Hammers, a track to reassess any preconceptions you may have about piano music. A track once heard, never to be forgotten.

Track 8 on the album comprises of four compositions; For – Peter – Toilet Brushes – More and is nearly seventeen minutes long. Seventeen minutes of such spectacular music – synths, pianos, electronics – that if you only listen to one Nils Frahm track, please make it this one. And yes, he does play a piano with toilet brushes.

But you needn’t start with Spaces. There’s a whole lot of Nils Frahm’s music out there, all equally as good and well worth looking into. The Bells, Felt, Screws and Solo albums have given me just as much enjoyment as Spaces.

Try It Was Really, Really Grey from The Bells if you want to hear something to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s a slow piano piece that gradually grows and grows yet there is as much true soul and passion in there as in the best Tamla, Stax or Hi! track you’ve ever heard.

On Four Hands from 2015’s Solo, the distinct patter of the hammers on the piano strings adds a shimmer that brings a lump to my throat every time I hear it.

It’s been very hard picking just ten tracks and I’ve tried to spread it around a bit, but really any of them would work out just fine. Maybe it’s just because I heard Spaces first that I want to buy everyone a copy.

You’ll be doing the same if you hear The Bells or Felt or Screws or Solo. I’m sure of it.

I feel that I should mention (and thank) Mary Anne Hobbs’ BBC Radio 6 Music Recommends show, for without that I would possibly never have heard Nils Frahm. There’s a whole world of new music out there, just waiting to be discovered!


Nils Frahm official website

Erased Tapes Nils Frahm page

Nils Frahm Discography

Nils Frahms biography (Wikipedia)

Read more about Nils Frahm in Rick’s “Totally Shuffled – A Year of Listening to Music on a Broken iPod” available as a Kindle book here and in paperback here. He is also the author of a trilogy of books about going to the Glastonbury Festival: Turn Left at the Womble;Left Again at the Womble; Tea and Toast and Rock and Roll.

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