Ryan Vail album launch with Rachael Boyd
Friday 8th April 2016 – The MAC, Belfast
The Friday before last, local electronic musician Ryan Vail showcased a raft of fresh material from his recently-released debut album, ‘For Every Silence’. Playing in an upstairs auditorium space at the MAC Gallery, to a small audience of only a few dozen, the Derryman did his record’s already-impressive reception no harm at all, on the back of highly successful release campaign (which has seen media groups as big as The Independent and the Huw Stephen’s Show on Radio 1 promoting the LP).
With an upright piano, an array of MIDI controllers and modulated synthesisers at his disposal, Vail’s set-up had more than a whiff of Nils Frahm’s – who he warmed up when the German prodigy played here in 2014 – about it, which is no bad thing in itself. ‘For Every Silence’ is a real stylistic mixing pot, with esteemed artists like Max Richter, Radiohead, James Blake, and Actress among others discernible in Vail’s sound. Of course, such influences have to be reined in to an extent (it’s practically impossible to outdo someone like Nils Frahm, or a number of Vail’s other stated influences, at their own game) but the new direction he’s taking on ‘For Every Silence’ is certainly an intriguing progression from the down-tempo, subdued electronica fare that Vail cut his teeth on.
In an order corresponding faithfully to the LP, Vail began with the melancholic Satie-esque piano composition, ‘1927’. This song is undoubtedly strengthened by Rachael Boyd’s emotive violin accompaniment, while ‘Above the Whitewash’, a track employing Eoin O’Callaghan’s vocals as almost Gregorian chants was one of the high-points of the album. The recurring birdsong samples (a little bit reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s Asiatsana), which act as a backing to a number of songs, are also a nice touch. The album’s move from fairly meditative, atmosphere- or mood-creating music to more dance-oriented material is unexpected and works really well – the techno undercurrents in ‘Never’ are a welcome emotional relief from some of the more heavy-going tracks, with its loose electronic claps leading nicely into the album closer, ‘My Mechanical Insides’.
One of the most impressive aspects of the show was how very calm and controlled Vail seemed to be when performing the material. It’s genuinely refreshing to see a young guy with big ideas who’s trying to do something a bit more experimental when compared with the majority of Northern Irish music. That being said, however, there were a couple of bits to this album which didn’t quite come off for me, in either its live or recorded formats (perhaps inevitably in an experimental debut LP). These were mainly found in some of the lyrics (which the album is quite light on) and the radio broadcasting samples Vail makes use of. I’m also not completely sure if the central concept behind ‘For Every Silence’ (a narrative about an 89-year-old piano inherited by his family) is completely sturdy – though the aspiration is commendable there’s a sense of it being a bit too much to pack into this very varied record, which is already bursting with a lot of stylistic ideas and combinations as it is. And – not to confuse matters – its diversity does serve it well for the most part.
It’s worth re-iterating how well-chosen the support enlisted by Vail for the album was, and this was plain to see in the live show as much as it is on the studio recordings. Moreover, some excellent support in the form of Guerilla Shout’s visuals – mostly based around natural imagery – made the performance a real feast for the senses.
Again, ‘For Every Silence’ is without doubt an interesting move away from Ryan Vail’s early material, with the breadth and richness of his first full-length LP constituting an achievement in its own right. And one thing this launch gig proved about the ambitious record is that it’s one which sounds a good deal better performed in a live context.