Brendan Byrnes produces an album destined for classic status

Brendan Byrnes - Neutral Paradise (album cover)

Creating microtonal music is tough. Music history tends to gel around styles that become a shared language of sorts, and that's what tends to produce the richest culture. Any historical example will do, but look at the relationship between figured bass and the Baroque style, and you'll see a healthy dialogue between theory and practice. The figured bass became a sort of shared machinery by which hundreds of different composers churned out thousands of masterful pieces of music. And it must be said: lots of boring, formulaic stuff, too! But any tradition worth its salt that has taken its hold on the collective minds of a group of creative musicians will have boring, formulaic creations.

One notices that many microtonalists are, by nature or necessity, pioneers in their own micro-spheres. Every one of them tends to go their own way, and as a result, in my opion, there aren't *enough* boring formulaic creations (in the "shared culture" sense), let alone completely satisfying masterworks. There are so many tunings to explore, that the temptation (trap, really) is to explore as many of them as possible while mastering none of them. And so, what most microtonalists have in common, more than anything, is perhaps a shared sense of being overwhelmed by choices.

Fortunately for us as listeners and as fellow musicians, Brendan Byrnes is decidedly not one of those people. He is committed to mastering a language and a limited set of possibilities and creating art in those possibilities as soon as possible. I'm reminded of Stravinsky's statement that "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles". In some sense, Byrnes must understand this, because in creating the "obstacle" of focusing the bulk of his recent effort into mastering the harmonic and melodic possibilities and properties of 22-edo, he's managed to present a working example of the best that microtonal music can offer, not only a more "pop" style, but in any style. At the same time, he's managed to demonstrate that the momentum he's gained translates to probably any tuning you throw at him.

And so, it's not often that I listen to microtonal music that raises the bar musically simply as music. But with Byrnes' latest release -- 4 years in the making -- Neutral Paradise, he really does create a work destined to inspire for quite some time to come. The 4-year gestation period is evident as high quality everywhere: from the sheer polish of the sound and mix, including beautifully designed synth timbres; the thoughtfulness of the song-craft details; the steadiness and ease of the vocal and instrumental performances; and finally, to the sense that this is a top-rate artist with a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish, and to whom musical quality comes before all else. Byrnes would be successful in any tuning, because he is true to high craft. He took his time for this release, and clearly, the results speak for themselves.

The album's description on Split-Notes' website says: "A vivid and hallucinatory onslaught of xenharmonic pop, avant-rock, and modern electronica. Microtonal guitars and synthesizers cascade over intricate, pulsating grooves that lead the listener through kaleidoscopic, lush sound worlds." A very accurate description, indeed. The multi-colored synaesthesia you are likely to experience with this album is inseparable from the chosen tunings (22-edo largely, as well as a bit of 13-limit Just Intonation, 7-edo, and 27-edo), but it never gets in the way of Byrnes' giving you a solid groove and plenty of ear-catching and memorable melody. And the "kaleidoscopic" nature of the music also never gets in the way of the delivery of well-played and well-crafted songwriting; it only enhances it.

What makes this album so satisfying, too, is how convinced you are that if you threw it on and said nothing about its being "microtonal", you'd probably have a response that it was simply satisfying, melodic pop that had a solid groove, was masterfully engineered, and gee -- there's something underlying the sound to this -- a kind of surreal or psychedelic, dreamlike quality. It would be enjoyed for the reasons most people enjoy good (pop) music: it's memorable, emotional, sometimes danceable, and has a certain evocative quality. The listener could be completely oblivious to the fact that the slight tinge of dreamy weirdness came from the tunings employed, and would be no worse for their ignorance.

The album starts unassumingly enough with a teaser track called Entrance, which starts off sounding like it will be a drone-track with plenty of 22-edo's prominent 11th harmonic, but turns into a meandering harmonic progression over which a brass-like melodic line mixes with cascading synth washes.

We are in more familiar pop-radio territory with Hysteria, where we are treated to a punchy drum beat and solid, funky bass line. "I really like the way you knock me out...I kinda like the way it's working out", Byrnes sings. This could be mediocre boy-band material in another person's hands, but Byrnes' sense of groove, harmonic and melodic direction, and refusal to be average (22-edo psychedelia; a 4/4 groove with a 3-measure period) keeps reminding us that we are in the presence of subtler thinking. The tuning is so expertly understood and used here, that this song becomes a textbook example that proves what all microtonalists already: these tunings do in fact, have the potential to breathe new life into existing traditions, including pop formulas. Byrnes has a John Lennon-like understanding of asymmetrical song structures that keeps things interesting. At 2'50" into the song, listen to what sounds like a bridge episode suddenly evaporate and return to the main material. It reminds me of that strange half-bridge in Lennon's I'm only Sleeping from Revolver where he sings "Keeping an eye on the world going by my window....taking my time..."

Fluorescent City continues the ear-catchy, pop-radio friendly vein that was established by Hysteria, but here the rhythm section is even more straight-ahead and four-square in style, perhaps making this track even more digestible by those unfamiliar with 22-edo. He makes the chord progressions sound so normal here, but still, everything is awash with a special hallucinatory haze. The melodic hook when he sings "You don't care" is infectious. There are definite shades of Duran Duran or INXS at their best here, both in the overall sound and groove.

Operator switches tunings to 13-limit just intonation and a medium-tempo feel, and we get plenty of straight-ahead chord progressions that are colored by upper partial harmony to great alien effect, but his melodic sense and vocal delivery keep us comfortably grounded and able to enjoy the experience with an understanding of tried-and-true harmonic progressions, a rare talent. In addition, the lyrics here are particularly intriguing. Fans of Peter Gabriel's music with find that this track really resonates. It's one of the strongest tracks in the collection, for sure.

Electric Plains explores the gentler, more quasi-ambient yet still melodic side to Byrnes' personality. Here, the psychedelic qualities of 22-edo are front-and-center using tastefully orchestrated synth washes.

Byrnes really also illustrates his understanding of funky basslines that allow for space, and fully support a beautiful melody. The next track, Paradise, has a really, really strong bass line. Pump it up! One marvels at the invention and sense of inevitable pull as he goes into the chorus and the bass hits those repeated notes.

Instrumentals make up the 2nd half of the album. A more ambient-type piece that makes use of field recordings is Outside LA. It's a perfectly placed palette-cleanser, full of vivid color.

Kaleidoscopic and Electric Seven follow; the former being more reminiscent of 80s pop, but fully taking advantage of the surprising (and surprisingly beautiful, and easy-to-digest, in Byrnes' hands) resources of 13-limit Just Intonation; and the latter being more like space-funk in 7-edo, and more aggressively driven by an insistent syncopated bass-drum underneath more free-floating, slower material above, including a trumpet-line with generous bits of delay.

Light Tunnels starts gently and builds into a spacious, broad, and heavy pop-beat. If it were not in 22-edo and instrumental, it wouldn't be far from the kind of thing Journey at their height was doing, in terms of chord progression and the Neil Schon-esque soaring guitar leads. Exit, what I would call a "sister track" to Light Tunnels, is perhaps more of a "filler" -- still strong by any measure -- but seeming more improvisational or less structured, with its ambient beginning and mid-stream use of synthesizer arpeggiator. The downtempo Llurion closes the album with a relaxed pace and a familiar chord progression that makes use of i, VI, VII, and iv chords (plus surprise twists!) in their 22-edo incarnation. The melodic expression on guitar here really shines, and Byrnes really shows what a first-rate expressive guitarist he is.

In short, I cannot recommend this album highly enough. Especially impressive is the fact that this album is following on the heels of another reference work of great microtonal pop: Micropangaea. In my opinion, this follow-up raises the bar further higher.

My one critique would be: Byrnes' voice, songcraft, and vocal delivery are so strong, that my favorite tracks tend to be the ones where he is singing. That's not to say the instrumentals are not at an extremely high level, it's just that I would have loved to see the balance on an album like this favor sung-vocal works. I was hungry for the "arc" of the album to go back to something perhaps neo-prog and sung after the bulk of the instrumentals in the 2nd half -- akin to the way you get an epic like Yes' Heart of the Sunrise after Steve Howe plays his Mood for a Day on Fragile. So, Brendan, is your next effort going to be a killer Yes-inspired prog-rock album? I know you have it in you!

With solid leaders and visionaries like Brendan Byrnes on the scene, leading the way and raising the bar, the future of a music enriched by all the possible colors that the exploration of tuning makes available is in very good hands indeed. Drop everything and go have a listen to Neutral Paradise today!

-Aaron Krister Johnson