British producer Leon Vynehall built his name in the mid-’10s on jazzy, sun-tanned house music, but there’s always been more to him than just dancefloor bliss.
His 2014 breakout LP Music for the Uninvited was a heartfelt tribute to dance music’s queer history, inspired stylistically by the musical memories of his childhood – in particular, the hip-hop, funk, and soul tapes his mum bumped on school runs. The track ‘Midnight on Rainbow Road’, his outstanding contribution to Gerd Janson’s 2015 compilation Music for Autobahns 2, was a relaxed, dusk-lit kosmische cruise. On the 2016 LP Rojus (Designed to Dance), he traced the arc of a single night out dancing, sampling bird calls to illustrate what he saw as the similarities between the mating rituals of tropical birds and the interaction of strangers in clubs and on the dancefloor.
‘It’s funny you keep saying house’, a miffed-sounding Vynehall told 52 Insights earlier this year. ‘I never see myself as this house guy’. Nothing Is Still should see Vynehall shake off his ‘house guy’ label once and for all. On the album, his Ninja Tune debut, Vynehall exchanges danceability for meticulous mood-building in creating an imagined soundtrack to his grandparents’ emigration from Southampton to New York in the 1960s. Owing mostly to contemporary classical composers such as Gavin Bryars, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, Nothing Is Still offers a compelling musical depiction of Vynehall’s grandparents’ voyage to America. Indeed, it is the connections between Vynehall’s compositions and his grandparents’ story of migration that make Nothing Is Still shine. It’s a delight to hear the album’s narrative unfold in the music: on the opener, ‘From The Sea/It Looms (Chapters I & II)’, soaring strings convey the promise and excitement of a new land, and by the final two tracks, ‘Ice Cream (Chapter VIII)’ and ‘It Breaks (Chapter IX)’, with their serene piano and warm synths. Vynehall’s grandparents are, at last, comfortably at home in their adopted country.
Though Nothing Is Still takes its musical cues mainly from contemporary classical, Vynehall still finds room in its rich orchestration for a considerable amount of musical variety. The rainy, downcast ‘Envelopes (Chapter VI)’ sets a slow trip-hop beat against a deluge of despondent synths, while the jazzy ‘Drinking It In Again (Chapter IV)’, with its subdued saxophone and shimmering percussion, has all the intrigue and atmosphere of classic film noir. On ‘Trouble – Parts I, II, & III (Chapter V)’, the album sees one of its darkest moments, with a bright sequence of harpsichord arpeggios plunging into a series of industrial bass groans. The thumping ‘English Oak (Chapter VII)’ is about as close as the album gets to a club cut, though here the instrumentation is more sinister than usual for Vynehall, with a driving beat creating a sense of urgency and tension rather than an upbeat, dancey mood.
With Nothing Is Still, Vynehall has established himself as more than just a producer with a good ear for groove. The album reveals a storyteller in confident command of a broad range of musical styles and represents an impressive development in the career of one the most talented electronic artists around.