June CD of the Month – Digitonal’s Beautiful Broken

Digitonal's Beautiful Broken is Echoes June CD of the Month

Digitonal-Beautiful-Broken-Artwork_500Whenever an artist goes into an extended hibernation, there’s always a bit of trepidation about their return. Will they pick up where they left off? Were they woodshedding an entirely new concept?

Andrew Dobson started performing as Digitonal in 1997 and began recording with the 2002 album, 23 Things Fall Apart. With the addition of Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai Digitonal hit its stride with the 2008 album, Save Your Light for Darker Days. That album was, simply, a masterpiece, a definitive ambient chamber music exploration with haunting melodies and enveloping atmospheres. Bishai created soaring solos and lush orchestrations while Dobson mixed synthesizer moods with sometimes searing, anguished clarinet playing. They found a common ground between chilled electronic grooves and the modern classicism of Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt.

That sound continues on their first album in seven years, Beautiful Broken. Like Save Your Light for Darker Days, the title sums up the bittersweet melancholy that has been this band’s hallmark. Broken could refer to life, or just the glitched-out piano sounding like something between a CD stutter and a kalimba. They play on the contrast between distressed electronic sounds and sweeping string & harp arrangements like the walls have come down between a digital workshop into a classical recital.

For Beautiful Broken, Digitonal takes some cues from the middle period of the German band, Cluster. Like that band, many of their compositions sound like they could have come from a broken music box: they’re simple and melodic, but missing a few notes and hitting off-center on others. Inevitably, these poignant, fractured cycles evolve into something new, like on “Autumn Round” where a string ensemble merges with ostinato piano.

The album peaks with “Polestar,” an eight minute track of stutter-step percussion, swirling oil-on-water electronics and yearning clarinet. Dobson plays with repetitive minimalist forms, creating simple, subtly shifting cycles that spin in the air like a laser-etched mandala. https://youtu.be/272bnn2zKF8?list=PL2Q0onkJD69Sc43skMqXNIWUOqLclv6tR

In case you didn’t get that Minimalist composer Steve Reich was a heavy influence here, that’s made obvious on the last track, ”Eighteen,” named for Reich’s iconic work, “Music for 18 Musicians.” Dobson creates his own tuned-percussion cycle, in an homage that strikes up a dance floor beat you’d never find Reich using.

Despite the electronics and translucent atmospheres, the quaint, nostalgic aspect of Digitonal’s music is evident in every piece, none more so than “Luna,” a piece that you could imagine being played by a Parisian café band, with an odd configuration of piano, harp, violin and clarinet.  They don’t use the crackling record effect here, but they might as well-have with this gracefully dust-shrouded tune. Like much of Beautiful Broken it’s the sound of cracked music boxes, abandoned buildings and moss covered gardens in  a languid, surreal elegance.

~John Diliberto

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