For many, Ryan Vail will have come to prominence through his role as one half of Sea Legs, alongside Ciaran Lavery. Their album was shortlisted for last year’s Northern Ireland Music Prize. Fast forward the best part of a year and the Derry electronic musician has just released his debut solo album. On even the first listen it feels like ‘For Every Silence‘ will see Ryan Vail in contention for the Music Prize once again.
‘For Every Silence’ is an ambitious and intriguing first release, based around a singular concept. Through the album’s ten tracks, Vail tells the story of a 90 year old piano. The piano, made in 1927 passed through his wife Katie’s family was originally owned by Katie’s grandfather, a doctor and peace campaigner. Vail seeks to explore the piano’s history and its connection to its owner, at various points through the metaphorical eyes of the piano itself.
One thing is immediately obvious, ‘For Every Silence’ is a work of art with a unique concept. Nothing has been left to chance or thrown together. Through the opening sounds of rain, the piano softly introduces first track ‘1927’. A beautiful piece of music featuring violin from the talented Rachael Boyd. One track in and the term electronic musician feels insufficient, composer feeling more apt. ‘1927’ like a number of other tracks are not songs but rather musical pieces, well composed, cinematic and melodic.
Through the course of its ten tracks, the piano weaves in and out of the soundtrack. It is no coincidence that the quiet ‘A Strange Incident’ gives the first hint of electronic sounds before fading away into the polished beat of lead single ‘Wounds’.
Within the album ‘Wounds’ and ‘Faces’ are the more straight forward singles. Both are beautifully crafted in their own right with carefully engineered synth and electronic beats. The piano’s story is told principally through the album’s music but these are two of the few tracks to feature Vail’s hushed vocals, delivered to perfectly match the album’s tone.
‘For Every Silence’ blends influences from electronic musicians such as Nils Frahm, and even boasts a few moments that bring to mind composer Philip Glass. The album’s tone as a whole is minimalist and highly meditative. Within this introspective soundscape, Vail still manages to explore a broad spectrum of sounds and ideas. Spoken word pieces from both the point of view of the piano and the player appear, while ‘Wounds’ features an excerpt of a speech from the late Joe Cosgrove, original owner of the piano. Eoin O’Callaghan, aka Best Boy Grip provides choral vocals on ‘Above The White Wash’ while the romantic ‘Mirrors’ hints at euphoria in its synth backing and hopeful lyrics. What is hugely striking throughout is the sense of space on every track. This is obvious on the quieter piano based compositions but comes across even in more pronounced tracks like the pulsating ‘Never’ with its distorted vocals.
Last year’s Sea Legs featured some gorgeous sounds but what really pushed the nautical theme was Vail’s use of recorded samples throughout the album, snatches of waves and ocean spray. The inventive use of samples again features on his debut, this creativity no more obvious than at the album’s conclusion, ‘My Mechanical Insides’. It is another beautifully composed piano piece, but while tracks like ‘Wounds’ puts words to the piano’s imagined thoughts, for this closing piece Vail placed a microphone inside the piano to capture its inner workings. The album can truly be seen as a story, with the piano sound noticeably degraded or aged by this point.
Through ‘For Every Silence’, Ryan Vail explores a captivating concept and has crafted a fine piece of artistry. Every part of the album feels painstakingly yet elegantly put together. Every layer of sound and silence has been perfectly placed. From start to finish ‘For Every Silence’ is a genuine and heartfelt work of art, with each song flowing into the next, and fitting together as naturally as a landscape. This is without doubt one of the best Irish releases you will hear this year.