Ever since 2014’s Music for the Uninvited, Leon Vynehall has built a reputation for crafting rich, orchestral leftfield house. His music has always had a refined approach — the lavish strings, low-slung percussion, and delicate vocal cuts call to mind early 2000s Metro Area recordings. At its best, on songs like “Midnight on Rainbow Road”, Vynehall’s music seems to glide rather than dance, a blur of understated drums, echoing synths, and summery blue chords. It’s pure finesse and in the best possible sense.
Vynehall is coming off arguably his most refined work yet, 2018’s Nothing Is Still, a moving, symphonic ode to his grandparents’ emigration to the United States. Now, three years later, the Los Angeles-based producer has switched gears and released something looser, heavier, and baggier. Rare, Forever, out via Ninja Tune, is a choppy, drone-inflected LP that takes Vynehall’s signature sound to darker, stranger places.
This is an album of breakneck beat switch-ups, sinister drones, and voices modulated beyond recognition. There’s more happening in each track than your typical Vynehall song, a clear break from the minimalism of his early work. “Snakeskin, Has-Been” is a prime example, with its laser synths, stuttering polyrhythms, and cut-up pop hooks. Then there’s “An Exhale”, whose digitized vocals and droning synths take a club-ready track to disorienting heights.
All too often, however, this maximal approach makes for an unfocused, top-heavy listen. Rare, Forever may be Vynehall’s most daring work to date, but unfortunately, the result is just too cluttered to achieve any sense of artistic transcendence. The sounds here are rich, layered, and interesting in themselves, but it’s questionable whether they really gel together. “Farewell! Magnus Gabbro” is the clearest example. The elegant, mournful violins feel obscured by a completely static drone passage overriding the entirety of the track. The drone passage, which mimics the sound of an airplane taking off, never goes anywhere or amounts to any greater purpose. It feels thrown-in-drone for the sake of drone, experimentation for the sake of experimentation.
A similar thing happens on “Worm (& Closer & Closer)”. The song has some pretty liquid keyboards and soulful female vocals, but outweighing it all is an awkward, gravelly spoken-word sample that feels too flat and monotonous for the music around it. Moments like this give Rare, Forever a somewhat patched-together quality. The experimental flourishes and samples just don’t feel purposeful enough. Oftentimes, it seems like they are there to make up for the lack of substantial song structures.
The highlights of Rare, Forever are generally the moments that feel like vintage Vynehall, such as “Alichea Vella Amor”, with its minimal percussion and lazy-day saxophone, or “Ecce! Ego!” with its filter sweeps, glistening keyboards, and slow-motion groove. But all in all, this album feels too overstuffed to exude any sense of real purpose. Whereas past Leon Vynehall albums did so much with so little, Rare, Forever seems to do so little with so much. Thankfully, given Vynehall’s reputation, one can reasonably hope for more fulfilling records from this point on.