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Review: The pleasant, slippery logic of Floating Points’ Elaenia

On his debut LP, Sam Shepherd's unexpected moves make sense

Elaenia, the new album by UK producer Floating Points, was inspired by a dream Sam Shepherd had about a migratory bird getting lost on its way to South America. Elaenia is a genus of small passerine, or perching, birds, and naming an album after such a delicate species seems meant to evoke the natural world. But Elaenia has a feverish, dreamy quality, and it feels at least slightly synthetic, or at least definitely unreal. But the flight of a small bird makes sense as a source of inspiration for the album if you consider the process of migration: it’s the journey between two destinations — a space of transition that is neither here nor there.

An unruly beat trying to escape from a straight jacket

Shepherd is an academic as well as a musician. He has a PhD in neuroscience focused on epigenetics, or the study of how external factors affect the ways cells read genes. In an interview with The Verge’s Jamieson Cox, he said, "Throughout my undergraduate and my entire PhD, the way I understood a cell working was through this giant cartoon in my head — the DNA unfolding, the cell’s machinery." He’s interested in the effect the outside world has on internal mechanisms, and it’s an interest that reveals itself in his music. Several tracks on Elaenia feel like a melodic song trapped inside a more experimental one. Take the album’s opening track, "Nespole," which begins as a small, almost irritating buzz and works itself into a restrained frenzy, like a much more unruly beat trying to escape from a straight jacket. "Thin Air" similarly begins as a contained sound and builds to a quick percussive hiccup.

Despite this underlying sense of unrest, Elaenia feels frictionless because Shepherd doesn’t do any looping or sampling. Constructed only by a piano, a guitar, and various synths, the tracks on Elaenia unfurl unpredictably — no beat will betray the next. Shepherd said he thinks of the album as "one big track" that’s easy for listeners to jump into at any moment. It’s this improvisational quality that makes Elaenia a democratic listen. Each moment in a song — even the silent ones — holds equal weight; no one moment is built up to be more important or central than any other. Because of that, sometimes it seems like Shepherd himself doesn’t even know what’s coming next. "Silhouettes (I, II, III)," the album’s longest song at over 10 minutes, deconstructs any sense of melody, instead shifting erratically as each chord and key change pulls it in a new direction.

The album’s final track, "Peroration Six," is probably its most unwieldy: a low, industrial hum runs along the side of spastic math rock percussion and eventually ends up getting buried beneath it. It ends right when you think the climax is coming, making an intentional choice by Shepherd sound like a stereo malfunction. And so Shepherd is right and wrong about the album: it is an easy listen, but only if you enter without any expectations of what an album should be. Any track will make just as much sense as the next, but none will fulfill a melodic need without putting up a bit of a fight. Still, Elaenia would be difficult to rework, or to imagine sounding any other way. It’s even hard to envision Shepherd repeating it again in exactly the same way. It feels like a one-off album.

As you listen to Elaenia, you’ll probably find yourself adjusting the volume. At times, the album grows so quiet it feels like a track has ended, but if you turn the volume up, there will still be a slight buzz or lingering note. It feels like eavesdropping on a conversation you weren’t supposed to hear. The album’s minimal title track pairs lengthy moments of near-silence with moments that are just slightly further away from near-silence. At other times, songs will grow louder and more aggressive without warning. "Argenté" begins so quietly it sounds like wind on the other side of a faraway window; by the end of the song, that initial note has morphed into an ever-growing mountain of synth stabs.

No one moment is built up to be more important or central than any other

Over the course of Eleania, Shepherd creates a context for sounds that are as pleasant as they are slippery. The album is at once self-contained (as a single symphony) and refractory (it decides where a song will go in real time), but it never feels chaotic. Its improvisation is measured; its stops and starts feel cohesive. Like the human brain, Eleania is impressive, performing hundreds of very important, nearly invisible tasks second by second — and yet it remains largely mysterious, sitting just beyond the reach of human understanding.