In one sense, Hidden Orchestra plays jazz. They have a stand-up bassist, a keyboardist, and a pair of drummers. Most of their songs feature strings of some sort. Many of the beats are immediately identifiable as jazz beats, and there is certainly a jazzy inflection to many of the chord progressions and instrumental passages throughout debut album Night Walks.
To call Night Walks a jazz album feels reductive, however. To call Night Walks a jazz album actually detracts from the atmosphere, the cinematic quality of the music that the foursome once known as the Joe Acheson Quartet makes. You listen to a track like “Antiphon”, the album’s opener, and you get a sense of atmosphere that many of the electronic artists trafficking in “ambient” music would kill for. There’s the constant, audible sound of raindrops, there are backward-masked violins, and there are enough sustained keyboards to make the song sound peaceful even as the two drummers are coming up with beats that are insisting otherwise. Eventually, the song takes a dark turn, and at almost five minutes in, the mix changes. Suddenly, the bass is fuller, dropping the bottom out of the entire tune as the drummers come up with something Squarepusher would be jealous of, and the song just opens up. Rather than curling up under a blanket as the rain falls, you’re stepping into the deluge, reveling in the drenching onslaught.
“Antiphon” is a beautiful piece of music, and it’s not alone on Night Walks. This is music that evokes just the sort of imagery that its title suggests, doing so via superb musicianship and an ear for a story.
Later track “Wandering” shows how this can be done while maintaining a decidedly jazz feel. Joe Acheson’s stand-up bass is the star here, crawling around in the undergrowth as a hip-hop-influenced beat takes over behind it. Shifing, skittering keyboards eventually arrive to add texture and melody, but never to break the mood. While the bass continues to provide the foundation, the drums eventually take over and prove to be the stars of the show; the layered beats provided by Tim Lane and Jamie Graham sound as if they must be programmed, until you see them performed live and your jaw drops to the floor at how effortless they make those beats look.
This is the trick of Hidden Orchestra — no matter how spectacular the musicianship is in these songs, it is never positioned as a priority over the songcraft. The fluttering violins that start out in front only to be overtaken by pianos and plucked strings in “Stammer” are just a texture, even if the endurance they require is nearly inhuman. The horns of “Dust”, while utterly intricate and impossibly pure, are merely an element contributing to the Middle Eastern feel of the seven-minute epic.
Perhaps the only misstep to be found is featuring “Footsteps” as the lead single, the free download that’s giving the masses their first taste of this wonderful little album. It makes sense as a single, sure. It’s the only track with vocals (a lovely, lilting performance from Julia Biel), and it’s short enough to make sense as a quick appetite-whetter for the album. The problem is that it’s just not representative of the album, not at all. Aside from the vocals, the mood of the song is quiet and fairly straightforward in its smooth jazz sound, the sort of thing you hear drifting from the walls of the too-hip-to-be-real post-case hangout in a weekly procedural. It’s not a blemish, per se, but it is more of a transition, a little bit of downtime bridging “Antiphon” and “Dust”; to position it as the single is an unfortunate slight to the powerful music that makes up the rest of the disc.
This is obviously nitpicking. Night Walks may not be an innovative album in anybody’s book, but its willingness to play amongst the boundaries of jazz, film score, and ambient music gives it an emotional appeal that’s difficult to pull off in instrumental music. Acheson’s new collective is on to something.