At a time when the plight of refugees and immigrants is being examined both globally and nationally, we would be wise to remember the words of Nelson Mandela: “A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones.” In the 1950s and 1960s, immigrants arriving with little more than a few personal effects were welcomed into New York to begin new lives. Few are lower than those starting again, and America consistently demonstrated that it was a welcoming land of possibility.
After the death of his grandfather, acclaimed English DJ and producer, Leon Vynehall learned more about how his grandparents had emigrated from Southampton to New York in the 1960s. Energised and inspired by his grandmother’s stories, he felt a desire to capture their experiences and chart the life of two immigrants arriving on new and distant shores. The result is a bold, immersive project with a narrative that gently unfolds, displaying a richness of musical language like an elegantly written novel. It perfectly captures the feeling of the time with people and places emerging like hallucinations and melodies revealing themselves like snippets of forgotten conversations.
Opener “From the Sea” evokes the epic, seven-day journey Vynehall’s grandparents made from Southampton to New York. Crystalline piano notes float as if over water while majestic orchestral swells, swoop and glide like gulls riding the sea breeze. Eventually, piercing shrieks and imposing synth chords vividly summon the grandness of a cruise liner coming into port, laden with hope and possibilities. “Movements” awakens a real feeling of discovery as Vynehall builds a beautiful textual piece from swirling synths, floating sax, jazz piano and circling bass notes.
Throughout, the music transports you back in time as Vynehall creates a real sense of time and place. On “Julia” he uses snippets of lost taped interviews over rolling synths that gradually fade to a low hiss as if the tape spool has run out. “Drinking It in Again” possesses a real nocturnal quality as Vynehall creates a smoky, late-night noir backing from chirping synths and the persistent tap of percussion. It arouses the feeling of taking a nighttime stroll down a New York boulevard with woozy, hypnotic sax sounding as if it’s coming from a jazz player on a street corner. It’s another example of Vynehall’s ability to create arrestingly rich and detailed images through his music.
“Trouble” operates at a faster pace as cascading, arpeggiated keys and stray, deep bass notes capture a feeling of possibility. That same feeling that Vynehall’s grandparents must have felt when moving to “the land of opportunity”. However, the mood quickly descends with more ominous sounding beats and wheezy synths that suggest good times gone bad – the flipside to the American dream. On “Envelopes” Vynehall continues to experiment with sampled sounds as a large aircraft flies overhead, and footsteps echo along a rain-sodden street. Backward tapes loops and a steady drumbeat give it a slow-burning, rhythmic quality before widescreen strings glide and stutter giving it a full, cinematic sound.
“English Oak” is the closest the album comes to a big, dancefloor-ready number. Featuring grand, techno beats and fizzing synths that he sets in free fall only to explode in all their colourful glory, like fireworks. The heartbreaking “Ice Cream” uses graceful strings to gently tug at the heartstrings with intense, resonant chords that give it a yearning, longing feel like a heart torn between two places. The album ends with the gently wavering piano of “It Breaks”, concluding a gently enveloping piece of work that draws you in as if walking in the footsteps of Vynehall’s grandparents.
Vynehall has woven a rich tapestry of complimentary sounds that serves a purpose far bigger than the music itself. It’s an artistic piece in the truest sense that works best as a singular whole, inviting the listener to take the time to clock off for its duration and immerse themselves fully. As Vynehall’s undoubted masterpiece, it serves as a fitting tribute to his grandparents and to anyone who has moved to new lands to forge a new life.