Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The LSO Offer Promises And Keep Them

The beating heart of this remarkable collaboration between electronic musician/composer Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra is a repeated series of ethereal drops of glistening arpeggiated sonic dew Shepherd plays on synthesizer, piano and what sounds like a harpsichord, over which Pharoah Sanders delicately flutters and dances—only occasionally producing the voluminous blasts heard in his late ‘60s and early ‘70s albums.

Each of these arpeggiated “heart beats” (or organic breaths) glides into a long decay produced by an engaged sustain pedal that Shepherd eventually releases, each time with a soft, physically present “clunk”— if your system goes sufficiently low. The suspension produced by the seemingly empty spaces between the repetitive mystical glistens are compositionally important.

As the 46 minute piece progresses, built upon two alternating chords, variations shift the dynamics, the first of which is the LSO string section serenely entering in the background and giving the vertically bubbling piece some drama and forward motion. Later, there’s a short section that sounds like synth-modulated vocal gurgles and further out a series of low synth blasts that sound like fog horns and higher pitched Cetacean-like calls.

Only occasionally does the listener lose the piece’s calming “heartbeat”. Its resumption produces assurance and a feeling of continuity and security. Only once—at around 3 minutes into the 5th movement—does Sanders begin to display his full power.

Pharoah Sanders & Sam Shepherd

The orchestra strongly asserts itself late in the continuous piece as massed strings dramatically and somewhat surprisingly swirl, swelling at one point like the ‘sunrise’ on The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past. Later there’s an impressionist Debussy-like surge followed by what sounds almost like a music cue lifted from a Technicolor ‘50s western. In the 6th movement the massed strings erupt and have their final strong say.

Then as suddenly as this conflicted eruption emerges—the only flashpoint in a soothing deliberate piece—it fades, allowing the main arpeggiated motif to reassert itself.

Towards the work’s conclusion there are hints of mid’70s retro-synth. At one point I was reconnected with gurgly/squiggly “jury-rigged” ARP 2500 sounds I’d first heard on a shlock-synth Elektra album called Intergallactic Trot (EKS-75058) by Stardrive With Robert Mason (among the players were drummer Steve Gadd and saxophonist Michael Brecker). I used to sneak “spacey” sections of it into radio commercials. But I digress!

The 46 minute piece never fully resolves. It just sort of ends, which ultimately proved a smart strategy. This is a record you can play repeatedly and got lost every time in its magic. I’ve been playing an RTI test pressing sent to me at the end of December by a friend of Shepherd’s and remain mesmerized with every play by the mostly dreamy, meditative music and the pristine sound, including Sanders’ sax, which floats serenely between the speakers. The massed strings can sound a bit aggressive, but I suspect that’s the idea.

Promises was officially released a few days ago so I streamed it on both Qobuz and Tidal, where it’s available on both services as 44.1kHz/24 bit FLAC streams. Firstly, having acclimated to the vinyl, hearing either stream was disappointing, but especially the Qobuz stream. Often (but not always), the Qobuz stream bests the Tidal stream when Tidal isn’t an MQA file but this time the Tidal stream was fuller, sweeter and more expansive, like the vinyl, but still not quite as “wall-to-wall” or enveloping. If “digital is digital”, what happened? Whatever it was, get the vinyl! (Available on both standard weight and 180 grams, April 2, 2021, both with gatefold, die cut jacket)

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Eskisi's picture

Let us see if this similar piece of (crap?) self-indulgent “music” will get traction 40+ years on.

Tom L's picture

I quit smoking pot a while back.

Michael Fremer's picture
You should start again...
Tom L's picture

but my eight month battle with bronchitis has me spooked.
Maybe this release will be enough to motivate me to try edibles. It does seem interesting.

Lazer's picture

He should!

xtcfan80's picture

Maybe a better title....

xtcfan80's picture

"Hipster Eats Too Many Edibles"

Glotz's picture

Lotta crass, un-funny opinions from uninformed people. Sad bitches.

Glotz's picture

Lol. I'd rather take these opinions above instead. Ha.

SloppyJoeBuck's picture

I'm not rushing out to buy this one or anything, but I'd rather enjoy something or just move along than be a turd in the proverbial punchbowl. Each to their own I s'pose.

PeterPani's picture

A little experience: after a lot of good reviews of Taylor Swifts Folklore I loaded the album down on my Ipod and a Astell/Kern (44.1/24). I really tried hard to get into it over several weeks and gave up, because it was lifeless and every song sounded the same. Voice and instruments an endless porridge. But the good reviews continued and 5 weeks ago I ordered the musiccassette from Swifts website. I put that into my old Panasonic walkman. And - wow - what a wonderful voice. And suddenly I listen to the lyrics, and they are a little self-obsessed, but full of interesting views about relationships. I wonder why the musiccassette can deliver the emotion. Maybe it is just the little irregularities in mechanical replay that increase humanity.

Michael Fremer's picture
did you post that comment under this review?
PeterPani's picture

Digital should sound digital. And it does not, you stated after listening to your vinyl "Floating Points". And the same is even happening when I listen to Swift's digital music on musiccassette (okay, I play it on a Panasonic RQ-S80, not the typical consumer walkman) compared to the digital files on Ipod or Kern.Since we are off-topic already: after you promoted the Sun Bear Concerts six weeks ago I bought s/h on discogs the (beautyfully made) original musiccassette edition, since I cannot carry around my Thorens TD124 when I go with the trains to work. Owning a cassette player with low wow and flutter, these cassettes sound audiophile compared to the digital files (sadly, I cannot carry my Revox r2r around with me, too). Piano is difficult and needs a perfect tape speed in quiet passages. But a walkman that get this right: Jarrett's sound is beautiful, dynamic and colourful on those 5 cassettes. I sell my home hifi! (joke)
Would be a good topic once: how to listen analog when not at home. Like me, there are a lot of audiophiles who are a lot on the move and can listen to their analog home hifi much too seldom.
I am still waiting, that somebody develops the audio-only-analog-laserdisc. That would give us full analog on small devices.
Sorry, to be that far off-topic now!

But! Yesterday, I ordered the 180g Floating Point from a re-seller at discogs. $60.
So, back on topic, finally!

isaacrivera's picture

Not surprised that there are those who do not like this type of music or any other kind for that matter. Music preference is a subjective experience after all and it is as unique as every pair of ears. I am really flabbergasted that adults have not figured out THEIR subjective experience is just that and it does not impute qualities in the object of their (dis)favor, in this case Promises. Not liking anything does not mean that something IS dislikable, it simply means YOU do not like it. There is no good or bad in any music.

And by the way ALL music is self-indulgent and your favoring and collecting of some or other is self-indulgent. Why in this world would musicians and composers set to perform and record anything else but music that pleases them? And who gives three flyin' #ü(%s whether you hate it or not?

And yes, Michael's opinion is just that, his'. Many of us find it useful and appreciate him writing it down so we can all use it as a referent when searching for new things to listen to. If you don't, I am sure there are other blogs to suit your taste.

When you react with such self-indulgent force against something that many of your fellow readers may like, you are insulting them with your conceit that somehow your taste is absolute. Concern yourself with your own petty collection and don't mind others'.

Michael Fremer's picture
When something so meditative produces such anger. Like the opposite of giving uppers to hyper-active kids to calm them down.
Glotz's picture

Pass the pills around!

xtcfan80's picture

Yes...many AP members would find much of my music collection crappy and vapid. I like much of the music of both Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane.The current hipster craze for both is wayyy overblown IMO. Reminds me of when Johnny Cash passed away. Overnight many alt-country, Americana Pop artists claimed to be "Way into Johnny Cash" That's the nature of pop music.

xtcfan80's picture

"Concern yourself with your own petty collection and don't mind others"
Great quote. My apology to all.

markmck12's picture

First, excellent review Michael. You capture perfectly the delicate nature of this music. I was initially a bit concerned with the repeated motif but am now able to see past it.

Second, after checking 20 different websites the 180g was totally sold out here in the UK so I went for the 140g (standard) on Amazon. Note to self - next time don't miss the boat!

Third, I was wrong-footed by the venom within several of the comments. I picked up satire in some but others verge on something much darker. This is a music website and a review of a piece of music. I guess one has to have an interest (or a love of, as is the case with me) in music to participate. Some people find it easier to dig up from within themselves a chuck of negativity rather than a positive. I guess that is what makes us human.

Telekom's picture

This is an excellent review Michael - I’m not trying to be funny but I think I prefer it to the album. I listened from the Luaka Bop Bandcamp page, and I gave it a good listen but wasn’t convinced. Your review has made me think I need to go back and listen again. But your description absolutely nailed it - with quite an amorphous piece of music, I think I would be stuck for words. “ ethereal drops of glistening arpeggiated sonic dew ” sums up that motif in the early movements perfectly. I sometimes feel Floating Points is hyped too much. I quite like his Buchla pieces on ‘Elaenia’ but I need to give this new LP another listen. Thanks!

stretch35's picture

my main go to websites just have listed standard weight

Michael Fremer's picture
torturegarden's picture

I preordered this over a month ago and my 140g vinyl showed up yesterday. The 180g is sold out everywhere. It sounds amazing and is musically sublime. An early contender as record of the year for me. I'm on my sixth listen in 2 days. Wow. Perfection.

Michael Fremer's picture
This has become my "last album of the night" for at least a month now....the other one is Fishman's "Long Season" but that's not streaming anywhere and it only on a seedee.
garyalex's picture

Both Pharoah and one of his contemporaries, Archie Shepp, are still making great music. I've been listening to these two musicians since the late sixties. They've both evolved musically since then. Both retain the ability to produce wonderfully creative music. FYI - this album is available on the Luaka Bop website.

Currawong's picture

Often (but not always), the Qobuz stream bests the Tidal stream when Tidal isn’t an MQA file but this time the Tidal stream was fuller, sweeter and more expansive, like the vinyl, but still not quite as “wall-to-wall” or enveloping.

This is because TIDAL MQA files have boosted bass. I've noticed this fairly universally. However, they have a noticeable loss of low-level detail. For example: Miles Davis Doo-Bop. The MQA version has a messsed-up EQ applied to it and is noticeably lower quality than the non-MQA version.