Francesco Tristano - Surface Tension

"Luxembourgian pianist Francesco Tristano knows how to upend expectations. He made his recorded debut in 2004, performing Bach's complete keyboard concertos. Three years later, he caused a stir in the classical and electronic worlds with his stately covers of Autechre's "Overand," Jeff Mills's "The Bells," and most strikingly, a piano rendition of Derrick May's epochal "Strings Of Life." Since then, he's kept a presence in both worlds, recording classical albums for Deutsche Grammophon while also getting remixed by Moritz Von Oswald, Apparat and Lawrence.
Surface Tension is a striking album for a number of reasons, the least being that it sees release on Derrick May's own Transmat label. May features on half of the album's tracks, his singular touch appearing on a full-length for the first time in the better part of two decades. Tristano and May delve into vintage keyboards—Prophets, Rolands, Moogs—to find new, forward-facing sounds, with Tristano's piano almost nowhere to be found.
"The Mentor" no doubt refers to the Belleville Three member's presence, but it's hard to parse just whose hands trigger what on the track, which builds from a tricky arpeggio and extraterrestrial high frequency into exhilarating techno. The duo pulls components in and out—now the big bassline, now the hi-hats, now the metallic chimes. "In Da Minor" features a distant, flute-like figure recessed in a muffled, heavily filtered bassline. Slowly, the low-end clarifies and Tristano's melody fans out, becoming eerie and iridescent in equal measure.
Tristano is such a fan and May is such a looming figure that it would have been easy for them to just bang out a futuristic techno album, but Surface Tension moves into other sounds. "Xokolad" does Perlon-esque minimalism. "Pacific FM" builds off a classic Italo-styled arpeggio and canned clap, but Tristano keeps layering fidgety synth lines, snaps, a sweep of strings and more. At the track's climax, the electronics part like a fog, offering a glimpse of his resonant, unadorned piano.
Surface Tension opens with Tristano's rework of Ryuichi Sakamoto's wistful '80s soundtrack gem, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence." After playing the theme, Tristano injects pointillist blips, pinging echoes and key clacks between the piano line, nudging it apart so as to find new energy and drama in its original melody. A similar melody returns on album closer "Esoteric Thing," though this time, Tristano's piano finds itself in duet with a field recording of birdsong as May triggers bass and hi-hats at wide intervals. Nothing here quite reaches the levels of May's work from three decades ago, but the album holds promise that we haven't heard the last of him or his fruitful partnership with Tristano."

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