May 22, 2024

A little gentler, a little lighter, but ultimately full of beauty…

Over the dozen years since the release of City of Dreams, volume 11 of Anthony Phillips’ Private Parts & Pieces, it was beginning to seem unlikely that the long-running series would continue. That eleventh entry had itself come along a dozen years after the tenth; an unprecedented, yawning gap in PP&P volumes, but one that had been complemented by six other titles in Ant’s catalogue, including double-disc albums, collaborations with other musicians, and a fourth volume in Ant’s other ongoing series, Missing Links. So the longstanding tradition of new releases every year or two had essentially continued since the dawn of his solo career in 1976. But following the release of City of Dreams and its somewhat discouraging response (according to Ant in our 2019 conversation with him), there has only been one new album in the 12-year interim, Strings of Light. Not to say that all was dead quiet in the Ant universe; numerous boxed sets and reissues had seen the light of day, and of course he had remained active in his day job of library music composition. But those itching for a new release were beginning to feel the scratch might not ever be coming.

Then came the surprise announcement that a new, twelfth volume of PP&P is on the way! The Golden Hour arrives as a 23-track, hour-long collection of guitar, piano, and synth-based suites, snippets, and motifs, very much rooted in the styles you might have grown accustomed to if you have at least a few titles in the series. And as with those previous titles, these pieces of diverse backgrounds and timeframes are shaped into a unified whole and presented as a beginning-to-end listen despite the lack of conventional song structure (in truth, there is one track with vocals that approaches something one might recognize as a proper ‘song’, unearthed from the vaults much to Ant’s own surprise). Resident archivist and vault forager Jonathan Dann was once again tasked with the hunting and scavenging such a project requires, and he once again succeeds admirably.

The 19 minute Wychmore Hill suite opens the album in tried, true, and traditional Ant style, a four-part solo guitar epic which traverses a variety of moods; from tranquil to frenzied to playful to mysterious. It’s precisely the kind of long, multi-part composition that served as the centrepieces to the more beloved volumes in the series and which made me fall in love with them. In keeping with tradition, most of the titles given to these compositions are of an evocative nature: Twilight of a Diva and Summer’s Lease are melancholy piano pieces, while High Flight, Cirrus, and His Final Bow are atmospheric synth tracks not dissimilar to some found on City of Dreams or some of Ant’s library pieces such as on the Missing Links series. Collaborative works such as the lovely Soliloquy for Sylvie and Sarabande Noir, written and performed with Quique Berro Garcia, are also included, and are album highlights. On first listen, Mean Streets seemed out of place with its synthesized drum part, but I quickly grew to love it – barring one flaw…

Much of the fourth quarter of the album consists of rather short fragments or seemingly unfinished ideas, the kind which led to grumbling from some listeners the last time around. After all, it can be frustrating to latch on to a piece of music you immediately like, only to have it end abruptly or long before you feel it should. As was the case with me and Mean Streets, as well as the track Night Spectre, which in all honesty could be four times longer (and still only clock in at four minutes!) Thankfully, the wonderful, Far Eastern-tinged Sky Diving runs for 2:42, an absolute epic in comparison with some of its neighbouring tracks. But all of these have their worth, and to be fair the first under-a-minute track appeared straight away on Ant’s debut album The Geese and the Ghost nearly 50 years ago. At the very least, snippets such as these show Ant retains his limitless creativity, and that’s something to admire.

The Golden Hour definitely has its time and place. I wouldn’t dare tar it with a lazy label like ‘New Age’ (which it isn’t), nor would I concoct a splashy headline such as ‘Music to Wash Dishes to’ (an actual critique one of Ant’s albums once received). I would simply give the album an honest recommendation to those who might like something a little gentler, a little lighter, but ultimately full of beauty… whether they’re familiar with Ant’s music or not. It’s playing right now as I write this on a late spring evening, with a glorious, deep bronze sunset serving as a backdrop, and neither the music nor the view would be nearly as striking without the other.

Private Parts & Pieces XII: The Golden Hour is released 31 May.