Keyboards often play a supporting part in many ensembles, but Richard Barbieri still takes the idea farther than most. His roles as band member (in art-pop outfit Japan and eclectic rock band Porcupine Tree) have always been marked by a distinct lack of spotlighting. He works with atmospheres more than notes, and riffs or heads are the exception more than the rule. This doesn't mean his solo excursions are simple unobtrusive ambience or abstract noiserather, these are vividly immersive tapestries that manage to be familiar and alien at the same time. His music evokes endless vistas of faraway planets, like the futuristic offspring of Brian Eno and Massive Attack beamed in from another dimension.
There's no need for mere melodies to stick in your head when the overall picture can transport your consciousness somewhere else entirely. While Planets + Persona clearly starts from a similar mold to its ambient-electronica predecessors, the scope is noticeably more vast. For each digital keyboard, there's an analog synth or piano to give more organic shadings. A sizable supporting cast adds world-spanning textures from electric bass to kalimba and kora. Underpinning most of the album is a steady percussion bed that shifts from light electro-beats to steady hypnotic trance.
However spacious the landscapes are, they're always balanced out by a little human warmth somewhere. Lisen Rylander Löve's soft voice may be filtered until it's almost coming through a dream, but its witchy allure is always there even without any recognizable words. There's an element of jazzy improv in the presence of saxophone and trumpet, whether adding light melodies with an unobtrusive Miles Davis touch or (more often) floating through the atmosphere with the otherworldly calm of Jon Hassell.
The whole is often minimal without becoming minimalisteach element is applied as much as necessary to bring what's needed to the overall picture, no more and no less. The rhythmic underpinnings can burble lightly, like alien creatures skittering around underneath a surface of ice, or veer into lightly unsettling glitchtronica. "Unholy" starts around a surprisingly overt chord sequence before drifting into something more abstractly eerie; the three-part "Night of the Hunter" follows an epic dynamic flow, starting in a Zen garden on Neptune and gradually incorporating layered discordant horns and drum trance out of a movie score. By the closer of "Solar Storm" it's all coalesced into a live improvisational jam, though one that still sounds like it comes from a club somewhere far away from Earth.
Planets + Persona spans the facets of Barbieri's musical sensibility and brings them together as part of a breathtaking whole: earthy and spacy, synthetic and organic, all-encompassing and intimate. In a career full of wide-ranging musical explorations, this just may be his most epic journey yet.
Track Listing: Solar Sea; New Found Land; Night of the Hunter; Interstellar Medium; Unholy; Shafts of Light; Solar Storm.