October 02, 2001

Piano Magic

4AD was perhaps the most distinctive, most aesthetically strong labels of the 1980s. Sure, the label has only had two worldwide "hits," ("I Melt With You" and "Pump Up The Volume") but many of their artists retain a certain level of respectability and influence that most could only wish for: Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, the Pixies, Throwing Muses and This Mortal Coil all made names for themselves, and are still seen as influences on modern "alternative" music.

Then, the 1990s happened. Somewhere, the label faltered. As the times changed for the industry, so did the label. The Cocteau Twins left the label. A distribution deal with Warners, while getting older 4AD records into the American market, seemingly ended in failure. Although the early part of the 1990s would produce excellent artists such as Heidi Berry, Belly, His Name is Alive, Red House Painters, and Lush, the latter part of the 1990s found the label faltering rather dramatically. By 1997, their roster of original acts had virtually disappeared, save for various members' solo albums. New artists, such as Gus Gus and Tarnation, had their moments, but seemed to be missing a certain magical spark. Then the label really started to falter when they decided to focus on electronica. Making this story even sadder was the fact that there are labels that are doing a better job in finding and releasing atmospheric, electronica/esoterica acts.

Enter Piano Magic. A UK-based collective, whose membership has always been a revolving cast of musicians and thinkers. In a way, not unlike 4ad flagship This Mortal Coil. Being the first new 4AD signing in two years, and knowing how the label has become rather quiet in the "new artists" department, curiosity leads one to wonder about this new signing. It must be pointed out, however that "new" is not an apt term for Piano Magic; unlike the other groups in 4AD's history, they have already established a name for themselves, having released several albums and numerous singles on various other labels.

Son del Mar is a single piece; untitled as such, divided into six untitled movements. Information about the recording are saved for a small, tiny column of information. The CD itself is devoid of artwork or printing, and the cover itself is merely a print on cardboard. There is a list of credits about the film Son de Mar a Spanish film that most will not see. How, then, can this rather nondescript album be poised to ring in a return to the glory days of yore?

Because this record is utterly beautiful.

It's a simple answer. For the first time in ages, 4AD has released an album that simply is more substance over style. This record soars high, and follows in the tradition of such luminaries as Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, and Harold Budd. It's been eons since they've released an album that's intent on lifting the listener to a higher level of being, creating mental pictures while caressing the listener with aural ecstasy. There's no level of pretense here, as found in other electronica acts that the label dabbled in. And finally, it's a soundtrack to an imaginary film, except this time, there's a real film. It's one of those cinematic kind of records, and it's worth your time to seek out. Son de Mar will not only make you anxious to hear their follow up album that's due this winter, but will make you want to seek out their other releases. If, after listening, you feel like you've been feeling like you've been missing out on something, it's okay, because you have.

--Joseph Kyle

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