Big and Loud and Nothing at All: Floating Points’ Elaenia

Floating Points steps out of the club and embraces contradiction on his debut full-length, Elaenia.
By    November 23, 2015


Will Schube is the Boiler Room Baron.

The first time I heard Sam Shepherd’s music was in a Croatian Coliseum. I was in the middle of a European trip that centered around a Four Tet show in the Pula Arena and Shepherd, who records music under the name Floating Points, just happened to be an opening act. I had heard the stage name from his career as a London DJ, where he spun rare records from around the world. Songs that exist once and then disappear back into his crates. The opposite of the internet. A cool idea, but the British dance scene has always been a foreign concept to me. The dance scene, it seems, is now a distant memory to Shepherd too.

The Floating Points live show consists of an 11 person band. When I saw them, they performed a 45 minute set. No breaks, just music. The band’s longest pause occurred after the show, when Shepherd acknowledged the few fans able to express the necessary adulation for such an insane experience. The combination of music, atmosphere, and being in a coliseum that was built in the ACTUAL B.C. added up to something immeasurable by any metric.

So yeah, my anticipation for his debut full length, Elaenia, was perhaps a bit on the strong side. He performed the album front-to-back when I saw the band play, but Elaenia quickly establishes the live Floating Points Ensemble and Floating Points, the musician as two distinct entities. His band thrives on energy. The way each song builds follows a familiar pattern. First one instrument, then a few, then many. Before long, the noise is explosive and eventually coalesces back into nothing. Rinse, lather, repeat.  On his new record, Shepherd is far more interested in the space between these big moments.

Elaenia builds, but only in hopes of re-defining what such a concept is meant to accomplish. “Silhouettes (I, II, & III)” bubbles and then fizzes, exploring the surface and the matter just beneath it. “Silhouettes” is the album’s defining moment, a beautiful composition equal parts astral jazz and post-rock repetitive climax. It’s both hearty enough for the movies and quirky enough for an acid trip. It grows so big, one almost forgets that he made his name as a purveyor of vinyl obscurities, playing records you needed but would never get.

Shepherd runs in circles with Ben UFO and Pearson Sound, but Elaenia is far from his early days as a dance floor Molly supplement. Four Tet, one of IDM’s pioneers, shook the  Croatian coliseum with a bass heavy set. He played his own songs, but it felt like a DJ set. The early Floating Points singles are studied affairs in a similar vein. They sound like integral parts of mixes. Melding and patient, tracks like “Montparnasse” and “Arp3” soundtrack late night energy and 2 AM fumes. Released in 2014, “Montparnasse” hinges on a subtly deployed vocal sample, an Eastern yelp snipped to a moment’s length. Shepherd has no interest in the overextension of any part. These are dance floor tracks, but they indict excess. Elaenia, on the other hand, relishes the outcome of these repeated fragments.

Elaenia runs 43 minutes over seven tracks, yet chooses bombastic moments sparingly. Its biggest ideas are large and ambitious. The smallest barely register above an ambient tic. The space in between is what pushes this record, and it’s where Shepherd does his exploring. The title track is nothing more than a search through various noises—radio static and keyboard musings—but its placement between “Silhouettes” and “Argent?” gives it crucial importance as a link. Dance music is often over-reliant on indulgence and Shepherd uses Elaenia to consciously turn the genre into a meditative study. “Argent?” creates a landscape of ascending and descending synthesizers, bouncy and unchanging, yet it’s this steadiness that gives the track power. “Thin Air” is exactly that, waiting until the conclusion to extend above a whisper. And this is what Elaenia’s about. It can be huge, it can be unassuming, but it’s the force in between these phrases that matter most.

Elaenia isn’t a dance record, nor is it a re-creation of an ecstatic live performance. It’s a record of pushed limits. Conclusions are subverted, genre is splintered. Album closer “Peroration Six” is a work of contrast. Keyboards and harsh guitar tones stick out against the record’s pervasive quiet. And yet, the track is a perfect summation of Elaenia. It’s jarring and beautiful, hushed and explosive. Floating Points isn’t so much a contradiction as a multitude. His boundaries reach past dance floors and ancient coliseums. His scope lands outside of electronic music and psychedelic jazz. A grand statement and a soft hello. So much more and often barely anything at all.

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