Switched On – Neil Cowley: Battery Life (Mote)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Battery Life is a wholly appropriate title for Neil Cowley’s second solo album. It reflects his experience of bittersweet memories – ‘like a battery, they come with a positive and a negative’, he says. Cowley will reveal all in a forthcoming interview with Arcana, but here he plays out the memories through his piano. He uses a slightly modified instrument, with dampeners often applied for more sensitive volume control, while the main melodic material is dressed with complementary electronics and percussion. These materials draw from ambient and semi-classical sources, though Cowley retains an approach that allows for free improvisation.

What’s the music like?

Intimate and often moving. Cowley avoids by some distance the trappings of arpeggiated piano music, staying well away from the café or the hotel bar and drawing the listener in to the front room or the studio.

In fact the feeling grows that as listeners we are sat right next to Cowley at the piano and able to read his thoughts as he plays. Often he will begin with musical fragments that then blossom into meaningful phrases or riffs on which other thoughts can build, often with percussion and ambient brush strokes for company.

Automata is a good example of Cowley’s careful production of the piano sound itself, employing dampeners and giving effective electronic displacements to the sound. Breaka combines short motifs and windswept atmospherics with a slow but solid rhythm, while more detached figures probe and build up momentum on Ticker Tape.

While a good deal of the tone is serious that does not stop more capricious thoughts, such as those on Scarab Beetle, where little hooks blossom into full blown flights of fancy. The closing Cord brings emotions to a height, still restrained yet deeply meaningful.

Does it all work?

It does. The thoughtful approach is an ideal base from which to work, but through the different tracks Cowley is able to apply instinct, humour and the bittersweet nostalgia that comes with memory recall. The use of perspective through the electronics and ambient effects is subtly applied but gives the music extra layers too.

Is it recommended?

Very much so – a fine and lasting sequel to Hall Of Mirrors, and an album that shows Neil Cowley to be an emotive artist whose fingers have plenty to say.



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