The combined forces of Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) produce pretty much what you would expect from these two artists. Their duo project Inventions capitalizes on their strengths, resulting in a gorgeous sonic adventure. The layered ambient drone of Eluvium and fractured anthemic vibe of Explosions in the Sky make for very compatible bedfellows.
This successful conflation of ideas becomes apparent from the very beginning of their new album, Continuous Portrait (their long-awaited follow up to 2015’s Maze of Woods). On the opening track “Hints and Omens”, a few seconds of laughter are followed by bursts of melodic electronics and low piano note fiddling, and soon the sweeping, sustained chords of your typical Explosions in the Sky composition unfold. It’s a fitting, almost reassuring introduction to an album filled with moments of strangeness, comfort, and bold creativity.
But Cooper and Smith aren’t content to simply rest on their well-earned reputations. The variety of ideas put forth on Continuous Portrait (available digitally on 29 May and in CD and vinyl formats on 10 July) are a joy to hear. “Calico” chugs along on an unusual combination of acoustic guitar strumming and processed percussion (reminiscent of recent works by the British instrumental trio Haiku Salut) as a distant, ethereal choir adds a delightful air of mystery. One of the biggest curveballs on the album is arguably the single “Outlook for the Future”, which glides along on a gentle, Latin-tinged rhythm and is propped up by a propulsive flute loop, warm organ chords and occasional samples of what sounds like disembodied film dialogue. The warm, tropical vibe is both gently reassuring and oddly danceable. These two artists aren’t necessarily known for foot-tapping tunes, but that’s just one of many surprises on this well-crafted album.
The sense of warmth and comfort that emanates so strongly from Continuous Portrait is often tinged with a glimpse into the unknown. There’s a sense of empathy and reassurance, but also mystery. Moving in and out of the beat that forms the spine of “Spirit Refinement Exploder”, for example, are alien sonic emissions, piano-driven melodies rising out of the thrum of electronics, and those ever-present choral bits and spoken-word samples. Under the direction of less-skilled artists, this would come off as a hot mess, but Cooper and Smith approach this mild chaos with even hands.
But there are also moments on Continuous Portrait that exude directness and simplicity, such as on “A Time in My Life”, which builds on a funky, nimble bass (or synth-bass) figure as other instruments wrap themselves around it. Marimba copies the bass melody, electric guitar, and piano offer up minimal chordal accompaniment, aching violins come out of nowhere, and gentle wind-like whooshes punctuate the track like a breeze coming in from an open window. The song has a low-key ambient feel, but the multiple instruments that get added to the mix give it a satisfyingly layered vibe.
Unlike many similar instrumental projects, Continuous Portrait is suffused with hope and empathy, but also a keenly executed sense of adventure. It would be a disservice to this album and the artists who created it to refer to it as something to put on when you just want to relax and forget your troubles. Sure, it has that type of meditative quality, but also a surprising amount of structure and sophistication.