As autobiographical instrumental experiences go, Joseph Shabason’s The Fellowship starts pretty appropriately. On “Life With My Grandparents”, simple, deliberately paced keyboard chords and highly processed saxophone notes float across a mysterious music bed. But it’s the cassette recording of a child’s voice, weaving in and out of the track, that adds a sonic layer that’s both mysterious and also indicative of the hazy memories of early childhood. With this combination of sounds, the listener is drawn into perhaps the most personal project of Shabason’s so far.
Shabason, a Toronto-based saxophonist, has collaborated with Destroyer, the War on Drugs, the synthpop band DIANA, and countless others. But as a solo artist, he’s no stranger to infusing deep personal experiences into his music. The albums Aytche (2017) and Anne (2018), reflected the impact that Parkinson’s was having on his family, as both his father-in-law and his mother were suffering from the disease. On The Fellowship, his experiences – and that of his parents and grandparents before him – living in an Islamic and Jewish dual-faith household are chronicled.
As a purely instrumental album, Shabason’s mission of conveying these experiences without the benefit of words may have presented a small challenge. But it’s a task that he’s accomplished beautifully, as the performances walk a fine line between deeply experimental and highly emotional. “Escape From North York” – the title referencing the Toronto neighborhood where Shabason’s parents were raised – begins with a simple, almost maddeningly repetitious synth line, paired with skittering percussion, as the song gets more tense and layered. The arrangement is a fitting one as it represents his parents fleeing the neighborhood against their own parents’ wishes.
On the title track, Shabason provides a somewhat more relaxed, jazzy alternative to some of the album’s more tension-filled moments, as saxophone and digitized pan flute are intensely melodic against an odd backdrop of falling rain. Here and elsewhere, Shabason’s sound is vaguely similar to that of fellow Canadian Colin Fisher, whose recent release Reflections of the Invisible World combined synth touches with experimental jazz.
Shabason gets increasingly personal and autobiographical on a stunning three-song suite as his childhood is methodically unpacked. On “0-13″, simple, almost childlike melodies are unspooled. The highly processed synth notes and fluid bass are slick yet refreshingly uncomplicated and sees Shabason vaguely flirting with vaporware. “13-15”, supposedly representing key adolescent years, combines marimba and unmoored flute notes with bursts of free-form guitar-shredding, recalling Discipline-era King Crimson. The suite concludes with “15-19”, in which Shabason comes to terms with his religious upbringing and how it can contradict his love for earthly pleasures and the decidedly non-religious practices of his friends. As a result, the song has a deeply contemplative air – it’s the sound of discovery, growth, and maturity.
It would be misleading to refer to The Fellowship as a religious or spiritual album per se – rather, it’s a reaction to growing up in a house of faith. The album is neither preachy nor damning; it’s a gorgeous musical interpretation of childhood, as learned experiences are both elegantly conveyed and messily regurgitated.