Echoes Jan 2022 CD of the Month: The Great Northern

The Great Northern's Nocturnes: Echoes January 2022 CD of the Month

by John Diliberto 12/30/2021

I sometimes think that beneath the surface of every country artist, there lies an ambient musician. Hammock, SUSS, Giles Reaves, Bruce Kaphan and BJ Cole have all started in country and gone to the atmospheric side of things. Even Buck Owens got there, buying the second Moog modular ever.

Country is also where The Great Northern comes from. That’s the electronic persona of Nashville-based producer Ben Jackson. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, composer and session musician. That means he’s usually more involved with country twang than electronic space. He’s worked extensively with bands like Sister Hazel as well as other country, pop and rock artists. He’s got a great-looking studio in the city and also makes drum tracks for licensing. But none of that prepares  you for the sound of The Great Northern. It relies on analog synthesizers instead of pedal steel guitars.

With Nocturnes, his debut album as The Great Northern, he takes us into a melodic, classically tinged space. A lot of recordings in the pandemic era have been dark and brooding, but The Great Northern takes to the skies with a sound that rides on warm synthesizer timbres, piano-driven themes and ambient accents.

I don’t know if Jackson’s titles inspired these tracks or were created after the event, but I’m inclined to think the former. The opening track, “Twilight Lullaby,” modulates four-note sequencer patterns that wander the stereo spectrum as sweeping chords pan through filters. It all eventually gives way to a heroic piano theme, traced by sustained flute-like timbres in counterpoint. It’s an inviting piece marked by careful sound shaping. You can tell that this song, as well as most of the album, has a lot of live performance in it.

“Winter’s Walk” also lives up to its title. It’s a beautiful, glistening track with a simple sequencer pattern overlaid by another icicle configuration and sweeping synth chord, doubled with choral voice. It builds anticipation before breaking out like you’ve just come through the pass at Sun Valley in mid-winter.

There’s a lightness to Nocturnes that I find refreshing at the moment. The darkest Nocturnes gets is “Ancient Particles,” a stark journey with a four-note, syncopated sequencer riding insistently through as the landscape changes, with synth percussion. The play of growling synth swells against a glockenspiel, creates a horror movie sense of tension.

But most tracks, like “Stargazer,” look to the skies. Perhaps it’s the season, but this could be a winter song as well, with its bell-like vibes patterns and pizzicato string accents. The Great Northern works in spiral melodies that circle, evolve and spin off other spirals including a classic Moog-sounding rubato run that harkens back to Tomita and Vangelis.

The Great Northern heads to deep ambient space again on “Parting Skies”, a slow motion free-fall of cascading synth sustains, phasing through each other. That feel continues on “Daybreak” which closes the album out, as a rapid sequencer pattern propels us toward the dawn.

You might find echoes of artists from the old Private Music label here: Patrick O’Hearn, Eddie Jobson and Jerry Goodman in particular, as well as Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre and the aforementioned Vangelis. But The Great Northern has carved a distinctive sound with his melodic invention and meticulous sound craft. Maybe it’s all that time twanging country music that gave him that sensibility, although I sense more of a classical input than country.

If you’re looking for something to lift you up in these long dark nights as we enter 2022, you won’t find anything better than Nocturnes by The Great Northern.

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