“The piano keys are black and white but they sound like a million colors in your mind.”
Maria Cristina Mena
Discussing the change in his songwriting process that has seen him release music under the EXEC pseudonym, singer Troels Abrahamsen has waxed-lyrical about his love of the piano; “since my childhood the piano has had a central role in my life. Therefore it was a success to be back there and have direct contact with an instrument again. For me it became an opportunity to create something new and start over.”
The slow death of the piano has been predicted almost as often as the demise of guitar music and the album format, but like those two it remains hugely popular. Whilst certainly electronic-pianos, keyboards and synthesisers have taken a share of the black and white keyed market, the variety and humanity of the analogue piano retains much of it’s emotive and honest glow.
The story of the piano beings over three hundred years ago in Padua, Italy with a harpsichord maker by the rather splendid name of Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori. The piano developed directly from the weakness of other keyboard instruments, the harpsichord had the required volume for live performances but didn’t allow the musician to control the volume of each note limiting the expressive control of the instrument, whilst the clavichord offered greater freedom of expression but simply wasn’t loud enough for large performances. The piano gave musicians the best of both worlds.
The rise of the middle classes in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries saw a huge boom for the piano. With no recorded music learning to play sheet music was often the only way to keep up with the music of the day, added to this fact, flirtatious tickling of the ivories was one of the most socially acceptable way for young men and women from good backgrounds to court, like an 18th century version of tinder.
It was only the development of the radio and the record player that saw a decline in the popularity of home pianos. These technological innovations coupled with worldwide financial depression saw a sharp drop in worldwide sales of pianos, resulting in a number of makers going out of business. Since then piano sales suffered a further blow with the rise of electronic keyboards, in many people’s eyes their portability and price making up for their less beautiful tonal qualities.
Whilst not the cultural phenomenon they once were, the humble piano remains a beautiful thing, capable perhaps more than other instrument of taking emotion straight from the player and placing it in the ear of the listener. Musicians from Chopin to Elton John have all fallen for the charms of the piano and whilst its heyday may be behind it, there’s life in the old ivories yet.
Danish musician Troels Abrahamsen has already crafted a relatively successful musical career; in his native Denmark he’s reached a modicum of fame as the frontman of gold selling electro-rock act VETO. However listening to The Limber Real, his first album under the pseudonym EXEC, you’d be forgiven for not really understanding how; The Limber Real is wonderful for many reasons, but the concept of this being written by a man who has any concept of achieving commercial success seems entirely infeasible. It is raw stripped back emotions, it is art, it is a high-concept audiophile’s dream, it is a man sitting at piano pouring his heart out, day after day until he finds some sound that in his own mind is exactly what he is looking for, it is the antithesis of pop music.
The project developed out of a desire to strip back the layers of the music Troels had made previously, and tap into something raw and more emotive. Working alongside producer Mikkel Bolding, they set out to produce something entirely analogue; it’s almost a love letter to, and an exhibition of, the power of a piano and a human voice to make varied and beautiful music. In their quest to find perfect acoustics and situations, Troels and Mikkel would spend hours, days, even weeks searching for the perfect place to record each song, searching for the room that would perfectly suit the mood of each track, and then running through multiple takes in an attempt to find the perfect performance, attempting to find some perfection that only existed in the minds of these two men. It’s not the perfection of clean pop recordings, but of some sort of deeper emotive reality. An attempt not to polish all the imperfections out but to capture them and embrace them as a vital part of the music; you can hear it in the way the strings buzz inside the piano on Blink, the noise of the pedals being compressed and springing back into place on Hymn, the distorted, painfully loud natural distortions of the title track, The Limber Real. It’s an album that possesses the sort of textural recordings more associated with sound art but incorporating them into something greater, something that you actually want to listen to.
What lifts The Limber Real above something that should be admired into something that can be enjoyed is the human aspect Troels brings, his piano playing is exquisite and delightfully varied, his vocal delivery is expressive, soul-stirring and honest, whilst his lyrics tap into a rich vein of universal questioning, exploring how we remain individuals even in a highly social world, how there is always a distance between individuals and we can never truly explain ourselves to one another, we can be at once together but never become one being; as he sings on The Explanatory Gap, “we can touch but never blend”. Human interaction is clearly something that Troels struggles to process, on the excellent Peers he even exposes his guilt at feeling so troubled by it in a world where he has it so easy, “I am a pale Caucasian male, I have no fight, no real travail, I fear my only mirror is my peers.”
Elsewhere it is a record that never shys away from life’s biggest debates. On Blink, Troels questions just how important humans think we are, “I just like the thought of the end of the world, seeing what we’ve built return to dirt” and concludes somewhat chillingly, “we think we’re creators, while we redecorate”. Humans, in fact everything on the planet is just a result of a flow of atoms, this is just the universes current colour scheme, like net curtains we won’t remain in fashion forever. On Near Singular Experience, he places the listener at the end of the world and asks us to, “think hard about the things that we hold dear”, Troels pointing out the green leaves, the blue seas and the great skies, he’s asking us to take care of the environment, to gasp in awe at the sheer excess of the oceans, to treasure the skies for their beauty and to realise why people have always seen some distant paradise above us.
Away from the albums fascinating lyricism, what truly stands out is the variety and flexibility of the piano as an instrument, especially in the hands of such a talented performer. Blink showcases a warm, gentle fuzz, Peers sounds unlike any piano we’ve ever heard, looping, choppy, disorientating like a chase scene in a silent movie, whilst The Explanatory Gap is intense and it sounds impossible that it can be the work of just two hands, the left hand carving out intense bassy runs while that right hand flutters effortlessly over every dramatic key stroke. These variations and precise technical pieces just serve to make the more straight forward piano ballads jump out; Full Of Knots in particular is almost jarringly simple; the piano joins Troels’ vocal in sounding grandiose and dramatic, it’s a song that hits you square in the chest, powerful, emotive and rousing, it’s just wonderful song-writing.
The Limber Real is a piece of work that’s at once accessible and ambitious, a blend of songwriting, studio-craftsmanship and music’s inexplicable emotive power. A reminder that in the rapidly evolving technological landscape, the power of a human being and an instrument remains as moving and vital as it ever has, and long may that remain the case.
The Limber Real is out now via Tambourhinocers. Click HERE for all upcoming EXEC tour dates.