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Fill the Heart Shaped Cup

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Album Review

Less than half an hour in length and priced accordingly (on CD and vinyl), Fill the Heart Shaped Cup is the end result of a creative and imaginative collaboration between producer Carlos Niño and composer/arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. While the former is well-known for his work in the Los Angeles aesthetic underground and as a member of Ammoncontact as well as a founder/member of the Build an Ark collective, the latter name may not be so recognizable, though he should be. Atwood-Ferguson is a member of the stellar Supernova String Quartet, and has done studio sessions with everyone from Ray Charles and Norah Jones to DMX, Bennie Maupin, and vanguard bassist Henry Grimes, and from Emanuel Ax and Esa-Pekka Salonen to Wayne Shorter and Brad Mehldau. Basically, there are electronics here, and some beats, samples, atmospheres, and strings; they are layered, arranged, sampled, and allowed to simply offer their resonant beauty to the mix. That may not be so unusual — but what is unusual is the depth of soul involved. These are emotive and emotional pieces, ranging from about a minute and a half to just under four minutes. In that brief time span, entire sound worlds are traveled. Calling this "ambient" music is a misnomer; it cannot be ignored as background music. In the most gentle way, it draws you in, brings you to the center of the mix, and wraps around you with everything from jazz to classical music.

The mildly jarring sonics that emerge into breakbeat science on "Changes" are simply a hinge for the other exotic and somewhat lush textural soundscapes to breathe. Check the church organ in "Extended Hands of Giving," as it repeats next to a bassline and loops that bubble under as another keyboard loop eventually enters like a small yet insistent voice. The track picks up a small head of steam but never pushes the envelope — because it doesn't need to. It gives way to the glissando strings and single-chord keyboard motion that introduces "All for Love." There is real tenderness in the call-and-response lines played between the violins, which then step into silence as the emergent chords whisper their way into the center. "Into the Depths" begins in a slightly more shadowed series of murky rhythms, courtesy of a distorted keyboard that is all warm and steady — like a heartbeat. These "Depths" feel human, not machine-like; they portray, with their tinkling bells, oscillator waves, and distortion, the inner workings of blood being pumped from the heart through its arteries and veins to the rest of the body. It's the poetic sound of primordial life itself in perfect 4/4 time. "High Heavenly" is pure string bliss as layers of slightly dissonant strings meet harp, a chord organ, and a hushed loop to elevate the listener into a state of awareness, gratitude, and spiritual openness before the set closes with the self-descriptive "Through a Child's Eyes," as Rhodes, organ, and space grace this sparse mix with a sense of wonder and quiet awe. While electronic music is easily able to instill a sense of emptiness or vastness, or even being lost in the middle of dimensional ambiguity, Fill the Heart Shaped Cup seeks to locate the listener, to help the listener to find a place within its beauty and grace. Without being overstated in the slightest, and always possessing a state of movement even as its contemplative explorations embrace the very subtle changes in the states of consciousness, it is invested with good will, humor, and elegance. Niño and Atwood-Ferguson accomplish something very extraordinary here.

Fill the Heart Shaped Cup, Carlos Niño
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