Leon Vynehall is not afraid of exploring weighty topics with his music and in contrast to many electronic artists, revealing much about his own identity in the process. On his latest album ‘Rare, Forever, this includes his own doubts, anxieties and fears, both as an artist and a human being. The British producer and DJ went from producing fairly straight-up – albeit highly accomplished and musically sumptuous – house music, to releasing an album in 2018 more in debt to jazz and classical than 4/4 beats, that explored the story of his grandparents’ migration to the USA in the 1960s. Now on ‘Rare, Forever’ he has, in his own words, “turned the mirror inwards” and the record is the result of an artist confronting those questions artists of any worth must face at some point: Who am I? Where am I headed? What am I trying to say?
No doubt due to the doubt-ridden mental state which birthed it, ‘Rare, Forever’ is a slippery and wriggly beast – like the snake that appears on the cover art and in more than one track title (in one instance as a worm). Levels of tension undulate throughout the album’s length, reaching their peak on tracks of lythe twisting techno, then decreasing on softer interludes of jazz and organic instrumentation only to rise again with the incursion of brief snippets of recorded voice – presumably Vynehall himself – sometimes musing cryptically, at others addressing the listener directly. All this means ‘Rare, Forever’ is best enjoyed in one sitting, which is easily manageable thanks to its succinct running time. And although there are some cuts here that would work in isolation as dancefloor fodder, Vynehall is as much a master of weaving together different moods and textures – blending the boundaries to create a seamless musical journey – as he is at crafting peak moments.
That’s not to say there aren’t some peak moments on ‘Rare, Forever’ though – and for all its jittery fragility, when Vynehall does decide to release the tension, the results are cathartic. The mid-album highpoint, ‘An Exhale’, feels like just that. A simple synth pattern is very gradually filtered – like a chink of light opening up to bathe a room in sunlight – as a vocal sample and sweeping pads are added to mix, hinting at the prospect of a drop getting tantalisingly closer. But rather than play to the gallery, the track takes a leaf out Sam Barker’s book – another of techno’s more thoughtful producers, known for his kickdrum-free ‘big room ambient’. The mega drop never arrives, with Vynehall instead letting the synth do all the legwork, as a result the track remains featherlight and a welcome ray of sunshine in an album of long shadows.
Although the making of ‘Rare, Forever’ largely preceded the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown, its themes couldn’t be more pertinent to the claustrophobic year we’ve all gone through. On ‘In>Pin’, the first of the spoken interludes scattered throughout the album, a voice asks, ‘Is it strange to feel this way…to lose oneself?’ The voice continues under a disorientating barrage of noise, before it climaxes with the question, ‘Are you pinned, like a moth?’ A simile that might originally have expressed the anxiety of an introverted artist wanting to avoid the glare of the public eye, but listening now, it feels like it could apply to all of us over the last year – feeling trapped in one position, unable to escape and spread our wings. The following track, ‘Mothra’ is tense fidgety techno; a haunting melody (which sounds like both sax and strings, I can’t tell which) darts back and forth like a moth circling a flame, while mournful strings rise in the background. It’s not a million miles from Jon Hopkins’ ‘classical’ take on electronica, albeit it a much more cramped and twitchy version. Music that’s not comfortable in its own skin – perfect for a night of soul-searching.
A well as being committed to the concept of an album as a cohesive whole, it’s clear Leon Vynehall believes the format is more than simply a collection of tracks. His previous release, ‘Nothing is Still’, was accompanied by a short film and even a novella – all inspired by the discovery of a cache of old family photos following his grandfather’s death. In addition to being a record best enjoyed in one sitting, ‘Rare, Forever’ is an album that you’ll want to own as a physical copy. In a frank and open social media post on the day of its release, Vynehall hinted at cryptic nuggets scattered throughout both the music and the accompanying 10-page booklet that was compiled from a long document he wrote for the art direction. Vinyl’s resurgence is well under way of course, but it’s still gratifying in this age of streaming, with music reduced to the intangible, to see someone embracing the full potential the physical format in conveying their artistic statement.
Although he started out making house music, in interviews Vynehall has resisted the categorisation as a ‘house producer’, instead suggesting that house just happened to be his chosen form of expression. ‘Rare, Forever’ is certainly far too awkward and idiosyncratic to slot neatly into any pigeonholes. While it contains a few cuts that could be described as techno or house, their elements are drawn from the richly organic palette of jazz, classical and ambient that makes up the album’s bedrock.
The upheaval of the last year has given us all occasion to reflect, to question ourselves and consider how we might live life differently; and for a great many people it has been an immensely challenging time, full of anxiety about the future. Vynehall says his hope is that ‘Rare, Forever’ can speak to anyone who has gone through similar periods to realise they’re not alone, that it happens to all of us and is part of an ongoing process. In the aforementioned post, he explains the album’s title as paraphrasing Nietzsche, that “self-actualisation is a great and rare art”. This is combined with the realisation he had while writing the album that such a process never stops hence, ‘Rare, Forever’.