Together with Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm can be seen as one of the most appealing names of the group of young(er) representatives of the neoclassical genre. Despite the fact that both have been releasing albums since the first decade of this century, this genre is mainly known to the general public by composers such as Ludovico Einaudi, Max Richter and Yann Tiersen. However, just like his Icelandic counterpart, in recent years the German has regularly made trips to other movements such as ambient and electronics. On his most recent gem, however, our Eastern neighbour returns to his roots.
The latter is not really surprising, because the music on this album was already recorded in the summer of 2012. These eight pieces of music were originally intended as a soundtrack for a barely thirty-minute film that Nils Frahm was working on at the time with director Benoit Toulemonde. Unfortunately, breaking his thumb makes that those plans need to change. After a brief visit to the hospital, Frahm listens to his recordings at home again. However, he is not satisfied and the material then is thrown in a ‘back-up folder’.
It is only on the occasion of Piano Day 2020 that the soundtrack under the name “Empty” still sees the light of day. This is no coincidence, because just like during this celebration initiated by Nils Frahm on the 88th day of the year (a reference to the 88 keys of a piano), the piano also plays the leading role on this album. Those who know Nils Frahm mainly from his electronic escapades, will find few clues this time. However, the eight atmospheric, often tranquil piano pieces will delight lovers of his older works such as “The Bells” (Kning Disk, 2009) or “Wintermusik” (Sonic Pieces, 2009).
Released on the quality label Erased Tapes, Nils Frahm’s new album nevertheless reminds me the most of the “Screws” from 2012, also released on this label. That’s not odd, because the music on these albums is recorded shortly after each other. Indeed, when the pianist, after his thumb injury, decides to put aside the eight pieces of the soundtrack, he throws himself into making “Screws”. Just like on that intimate piano album, on “Empty” we hear serene, subdued compositions that make us want to slide in some nice, calm dreams.
Instead of surrendering to excessive string arrangements or electronic beats, Nils Frahm keeps it remarkably modest and subtle on “Empty”. As if he wants to rock us to sleep with his minimalistic, often echoing piano sounds. Occasionally these are larded with wafer-thin crackling tones and here and there with a tiny layer of ‘noise’, without distracting too much attention from the piano. On the contrary, just like on the sublime “Felt” (Erased Tapes, 2011) we can hear the creaking and squeaking sound of the mechanism of this instrument from time to time. It seems as if Nils Frahm is trying to make us believe that the piano is a living being. By the way, you don’t have to worry, because the breathing that can occasionally be heard during the quieter moments really comes from Frahm himself.
Because the peaceful, almost meditative serenity should not be disturbed, “Empty” is largely stripped of all sorts of frills and other decorations. However, the eight sparsely arranged tracks unmistakably demonstrate Frahm’s class and skill in creating a certain atmosphere or mood. By means of mostly calm piano melodies and themes, he manages to evoke a wonderful feeling of melancholy or resignation.
With “Empty”, the first anniversary of the annual Piano Day, initiated by Nils Frahm himself, pays an adequate tribute. It is a soothing, sometimes contemplative album, which shows Frahm from his most intimate and minimal side. Nevertheless the album in all its simplicity, melody and atmosphere captivates from start to finish.