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Review: Nils Frahm, 'All Melody'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


Musician and composer Nils Frahm must feel like a chef who has finally assembled his dream kitchen. Frahm's new album, All Melody (due out Jan. 26), was crafted at Saal 3, a vintage studio space he was offered in an old East Berlin broadcast facility built in the 1950s.

A gear-head, Frahm moved many of his retro synthesizers and processors, plus pipe organ and pianos, to the studio. The space includes a series of reverb chambers, where sounds can be pumped into large reverberant spaces and get pushed back to the control room. Still, with every gadget and cable in place, Frahm admits in the liner notes that the album didn't turn out like he had planned.

And that's probably a good thing, because what the restless German musician ended up with is perhaps his finest album. Over the span of 12 songs, All Melody is a feast for the ears, a rich experience that is intimate and companionable, symphonically expansive, danceable and, as its title suggests, ripe with melodies.

But this time Frahm isn't the only one making those melodies. Unlike his past solo albums, where he was self-sufficient, Frahm invited friends into Saal 3 to play bass marimba, percussion, trumpet, cello and viola. There's even a small choir, Shards, whose members sing in atmospheric, wordless vocalese – sometimes with hints of Meredith Monk, as on the album opener, "The Whole Universe Wants to be Touched."

Like most Frahm albums, there's time for repose on All Melody. "My Friend the Forest" begins with rolled piano chords sounding like the strum of a guitar. The pensive, jazz-inflected theme breathes slowly and wouldn't sound out of place on a Keith Jarrett album. Unlike Jarrett though, Frahm places a microphone deep inside the instrument, so the mechanical shuffling of hammers and felt becomes an integral weave in the musical fabric. Rather than an annoyance, the sounds are oddly comforting.

Most of the music, however, is cut from very different cloth. There's plenty to groove to on this Nils Frahm album. The atmospheric "#2," with its industrial chugging and muted chimes, adds clipped choral chuffs to a pulsing beat, while "A Place" ping-pongs soft synths to a Latin-tinged rhythm and sensual chorus. On "Sunson," Sven Kacirek's bass marimba dominates (he's featured on seven tracks), interlocking with what sounds like Andean pan pipes as retro synths soar overhead.

Several tracks unfold over a span of eight minutes or more; others flow into each other, offering ample space for grooves to evolve, like on "Kaleidoscope," which lives up to its title with symphonic density. Fat trombone-like effects stretch out, giving way to a pipe organ's polyrhythmic oscillations, supported by a bed of pillowy voices. The album's title track is fueled by marimba riffs, a sheen of electronics and a jazzy keyboard solo, as if Kraftwerk had cut a track with Herbie Hancock.

All Melody is an ambitious ambient-electro-acoustic creation that will still sound vital 10 years from now. It's also a sublime starting point for those unfamiliar with this multifaceted musician. With his new creative "kitchen" in place, we can only wonder what delights Frahm might deliver next from Saal 3.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.