Michael Robinson: Viridian Seas
Azure Miles Records

Each Michael Robinson release adds a significant new dimension to an incredible body of work begun decades ago by the Los Angeles-based composer. And yet while each new release is guaranteed to be different in many ways from the ones preceding it, commonalities ensure that a clearly defined through-line will be present from one to the next to reinforce the impression of connectedness. Certainly one of the ways by which that's achieved is through the ongoing production process favoured by Robinson, which involves using his custom-designed Meruvina to generate all of the sounds on his recordings, the three 2017 compositions on Viridian Seas cases in point. Another element common to many a Robinson setting is the extensive battery of percussion instruments that's featured, with tabla, dholak, dhol, and drums collectively powering a given piece with enormous force. Common to the new release's tracks is the inclusion of vocal drones, even if their presence is felt almost subliminally when the intonations appear within arrangements already packed with stimulating detail.

Of the three pieces, it's the title track that, interestingly enough, is the least compelling of the three, simply because it recycles to some degree elements from recent Robinson productions, such as the female voices that open and close it and the Asian gongs that appear during its final seconds. Listeners acquainted with his previous album, Lilac Dawn, will hear echoes of it in “Viridian Seas”; those not so acquainted will find its soundworld wholly transfixing for being so unusual. Though piano is the central melodic voice, one's attention is also diverted to the percussive details as well as a beat pattern whose downbeat shifts so regularly that the listener struggles at times to keep a fix on it. Part of the music's dazzling effect can be attributed to piano patterns that boldly traverse the full range of the keyboard, though that too is a sound detail Robinson's used before. “Viridian Seas” is still, however, worthy of recommendation: it's arresting in the way its rhythms evade easy capture, and furthermore the sound design of a Robinson production is always captivating, even if it does share similarities with earlier creations. That said, the material does seem perhaps a little too close in style and arrangement to his recent output.

The other two settings, however, do much to recommend the release in the way they add fascinating new wrinkles to Robinson's music. The longest setting at twenty-two minutes, “Azure Rivers” immediately catches the ear by opening with a cuica's talking drum-like expressions and then layering wildly careening kemanche, trumpet, and clarinet solos across a lumbering 10/4 funk groove that itself alternates throughout between a fuller, cymbals-sprinkled pulse and a stripped-down, head-nodding one. As before hand percussion details are plentiful, a low-pitched male vocal drone also appears, and the combination of the frenetically chattering melodic voices and the locomotive thrust of the ever-changing rhythm dimension makes for a constantly bewitching result (Robinson even sneaks a boogie-woogie figure into the kemanche's playing towards the end of the piece).

As if the sound design of “Azure Rivers” isn't novel enough, the concluding “Snowy Mountain,” at eleven minutes equal in duration to the opening title composition, offers some surprises of its own. That it opens with a softly murmuring synthesizer pattern is definitely one, but even more unexpected is the inclusion of a rhythm element that when smothered in vinyl crackle sounds more like the kind of thing that would appear on an instrumental hip-hop producer's album than one by Robinson. In place of the piano in “Viridian Seas,” sitar assumes the lead role within “Snowy Mountain,” and low-pitched male voices again intone throughout. It's the album's second and third pieces, then, that make Viridian Seas a formidable addition to Robinson's ample discography. As seems to happen with every one of his releases, unanticipated sound treatments surface to startle the listener as well as leave him/her impressed by the composer's capacity for extending his sound world into adventurous new areas, even with multiple decades of recording activity under his belt.

October 2017