Exercises is one of the most stunningly beautiful records to be released this year. It's sprawling and subdued. It also comes dangerously close to being a masterpiece.
CFCF's Exercises begins with a quiet, almost somber, piano that slowly becomes more and more enticing. A bed of synthesizers soon accompanies it and manages to make it even more irresistible. Instrumental piano-based music hasn't been this convincingly gorgeous since Eluvium's masterpiece, An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death. While that record stayed to piano, CFCF isn't afraid to layer on some subtle accompaniment from other instruments, and every time he does it ends up sounding brilliant or at least close to brilliant. It's incredibly easy to be dragged into Exercises and as the record progresses, it becomes incredibly difficult to leave.
"Exercise 2 (School)" opens with an almost lullaby-like melody before a piano cuts in with a delay effect. Electronic bass-and-drum tears into the gentle nature of the opening instruments and transforms it into something that's equally soothing and menacing. It's a fascinating direction that shows exciting possibilities. However, it does feel a little out of place at times. That's really the only complaint to be had and that's instantly remedied with "Exercise 3 (Buildings)", the ensuing track. "Exercise 3 (Buildings)" starts with a gorgeous piano run, and layers another on top of it while it's punctuated by three simple chords that run underneath. A guitar-like effect is layered on and the effect is absolutely entrancing and it becomes very easy to get lost in. It's beautiful.
More beautiful, however, is "Exercise 4 (Spirit)", which is so magnetic that it becomes impossible not to get lost in it. There's no choice. Some songs have a certain magnetic quality or pull to them, and "Exercise 4 (Spirit)" is one of them. At a brief two minutes, it accomplishes more than most of the songs on "Exercises", although they do often come close. It's an absolutely gorgeous, somewhat cinematic, take on the palette that Exercises works primarily from. While "Exercise 5 (September)", a well-timed David Sylvian (considering the recent A Victim of Stars compilation) cover doesn't fare quite as well, it does offer an interesting break from the almost overwhelming sense of melancholy provided by the opening run of tracks.
"Exercise 6 (December)" is not only a return to that melancholy but perhaps the greatest proprietor of it. It's true to its title, evoking wintry imagery and moving at a gorgeous glacial pace. Droning synthesizers overlap the piano to create a beautiful effect that's hard not to be at least somewhat moved by. This is quite possibly the best testament that Exercises offers to the emotional impact of simplistic instrumental music and as such, stands out as one of its strongest tracks. More stark and more simple, however, is the following track "Exercise 7 (Loss)". Once again, true to its title, this is another beautiful piece tinged with a sense of despair, which is an emotion that seems to be most easily channeled through pianos and cellos, making it a perfect fit for Exercises.
Exercises ends on what's likely to be its most divisive track, "Exercise 8 (Change)", which broadens CFCF's compact scope and loosens his razor sharp focus to provide the album’s most eclectic moment. There's no real emotion being pursued here and unfortunately it sounds like there was none put into making it. It's the unfortunate unraveling of an otherwise outstanding record. One thing’s for certain, though, and that's that it doesn't dull the impact of CFCF's continuing elevated promise. It isn't difficult to imagine that in a few years time, he'll already have a few masterpieces under his belt. Fortunately, while Exercises doesn't reach that level, it comes close enough to keep everyone not only interested, but invested.