Sam Shepherd, the electronic musician better known as Floating Points, may be the only well-established recording artist with a PhD in neuroscience. But he’s also a rarity in that while his early releases were largely electronic-based singles and EPs, he began branching out last year with a more organic, full-band sound. This has largely worked to his advantage.
With the release of 2015’s critically acclaimed Elaenia (his first full-length album), Shepherd positioned himself as an artist determined to push the boundaries of what electronic music could do by actually making it more human. That means, in this case, adding more musicians and creating more of a jazz-oriented atmosphere.
His latest effort, Kuiper, appears to be a continuation of those themes. They’re calling it an EP, but its two songs are lengthy enough — running between 14 and 19 minutes — to give the impression of a full-fledged album. It continues to forge the same path as its predecessor, taking the blueprint of stretched-out electronic-based instrumentals within the framework of live musicians.
One of the advantages of the longer run times is that it gives the songs a chance to shape-shift in an unhurried manner, letting themes build up, break down and start over, often multiple times within a song.
The title track begins as a sort of contemporary ambient soundscape but eventually employs what sounds like Steve Reich-inspired phase shifting. Drums slowly take center stage. These acoustic, “real” drum sounds initially seem like an anachronism against the synth landscape, but they provide a refreshing, jazzy, funky backbeat, giving the song an almost hypnotic pulse reminiscent of Krautrock pioneers Neu. Ultimately, this washes away and the epic track’s final stage is dominated by retro Wurlitzer electric piano and a dramatic ballad tempo that sounds like Led Zeppelin during those precious moments when John Paul Jones was at the wheel.
As its title implies, the EP’s second track, “For Marmish Part II”, is a sequel to a song featured on Elaenia. While the original “For Marmish” was a lazy, narcotic groove with analog keyboard flourishes and jittery percussion, “For Marmish Part II” is largely cut from the same cloth. A mesmerizing Fender Rhodes riff drives the song, and has a more laid-back groove than the title track, providing a welcome contrast to the tension. It’s not unlike fusion-era Miles Davis filtered through ‘70s-era Pink Floyd.
Kuiper has the potential, at first blush, to come off as an afterthought to Elaenia, arriving a mere eight months after its predecessor. Fortunately, it’s a strong, welcome follow-up: potent melodies, expert performances, and a boundary-pushing experimental nature that is both an enjoyable listen and an even deeper dive into uncharted musical waters. And if this doesn’t work, Shepherd’s always got that PhD to fall back on.