Digitonal: Beautiful Broken
Beautiful Broken, the fifth album by Andy Dobson under the Digitonal alias, underwent an inordinately protracted gestation. The first all-new Digitonal collection since 2008's Save Your Light For Darker Days, the forty-five-minute album arrives in the wake of the retrospective release Be Still My Bleeping Heart and the writing and subsequent scrapping of an entire album. But the fact that Beautiful Broken, which supplements some earlier pieces with new material, took longer than anticipated to reach completion isn't cause for concern in its creator's mind. By his own admission, Dobson states, “I've made mistakes in the past where I would contrive certain things to fit in with a certain scene, but I feel happy with the new album, because it's me through and through.”
In terms of genre, Beautiful Broken fuses classic and electronic forms into a refined chamber style that might remind listeners of figures such as Murcof and Max Richter. Drawing heavily on both minimalism and Early Music, the album comes by its classical dimension honestly, given that Dobson is a classically trained clarinet player and one-time chorister. It's not an entirely solo affair, however, as his own clarinet and keyboards are augmented by the contributions of violinist Samy Bishai, harpist Kat Avery, and cellist Ivan Hussey.
Emerging out of a New Age mist, “Proverb” gradually recasts itself as a mantra-like meditation rich in percussive treatments, soft vocal exhalations, and elegant piano chords. “Polestar” likewise draws upon New Age for its atmospherics (and dub for its rhythmic impetus) whilst providing a swirling ground for Dobson's own clarinet musings. The album ends with “Eighteen,” an overt homage to Reich's Music For Eighteen Musicians that one would recognize as such even if weren't openly acknowledged. Dobson retains certain signatures of the original, though departs from it in adding a buoyant drum groove and presenting it as a four-minute piece that's a fraction of the hour-long original.
Dobson does a pretty good job teasing emotion from his electronic gear, though it's telling that the release's most affecting composition is the one that appears to be purely acoustic in design. In that particular case, the melancholy reverie “La Luna” charms with a waltz-styled arrangement heavy on strings, harp, and piano. Relatedly, it's interesting that it's the presence of beat patterns on pieces such as “We Three” and “Aneathmatics” that makes the material feel less individualized; the lovely strings-based episode that ends “We Three,” on the other hand, feels very much like something that separates the project's sound from others. The typical Digitonal production, whether it be the delicate, Asian-styled meditation “Autumn Round” or the downtempo, synths-heavy soundpainting “It Doesn't Matter,” impresses for the quality of its craft; it's clear from even a cursory listen that Dobson dedicates a great deal of thought to the arrangement and compositional form of a given piece. Nothing, in other words, about Beautiful Broken feels slapdash.