James Murray: Heavenly Waters
Slowcraft Records

On his tenth album, James Murray literally looks to the stars for inspiration, or more specifically the constellations. Eighty-eight of them currently are recognized by the International Astronomical Union and are grouped into eight families, Heavenly Waters being one and Perseus, Orion, and Zodiac among the others. As Murray doesn't clarify in what precise way the nine titles relate to the sound design of the tracks, it's left to the listener to ponder the degree to which “Columba” (Latin for dove), for example, aspires to distill into sonic form the peace-associated bird's characteristics or in what exact way “Delphinus” (Latin for dolphin) relates to the sea creature.

Not that that ultimately matters a whole lot, necessarily. Even if one remained unaware of the constellations connection while listening to the hour-long collection, the music would still stimulate the senses and engage the imagination powerfully. Instrumentation isn't identified, but one guesses Murray used electric guitar and an extensive supply of electronic gear to produce the material.

“Columba” quickly suggests Eno as an obvious yet unavoidable reference point, with Murray matching the ambient innovator's penchant for multi-dimensional atmospheric sculpting and simple, repeating keyboard figures that strengthen the material's soothing effect. As often happens with Murray productions, meticulous sound design is critical, so much so it challenges melody as the most important facet. In this case, for example, that tiny piano motif is central to the piece, but the gently swirling waves and softly murmuring synth textures that accompany it play as important a role.

In contrast to the placid character of “Columba” and “Piscis Austrinus,” the dramatic “Pyxis” (abbreviated from Pyxis Nautica, the name is Latin for a mariner's compass) pulsates dynamically, its insistent signals suggestive of distant life-forms attempting to make contact with those elsewhere in the galaxy. Sunnier by comparison is “Delphinus,” which, whether it was intended by Murray or not, conveys the impression of liberation we associate with the dolphin as it moves through the water with balletic grace. Suggestive of a three-part suite, Murray deliberately sequences “Puppis,” “Carina,” and “Vela” after one another in keeping with constellations that originally formed the larger Argo Navis, the name of Jason and the Argonauts' ship (the constellation names refer to different parts of a ship, specifically its poop deck, keel, and sails).

Each Heavenly Waters setting dazzles the ear with multi-layered swaths of grainy textures and buried melodies, and being as texturally rich as it is, Murray's music benefits from a high-quality reproduction in order for its nuances to be appreciated fully. In an epic setting such as “Eridanus,” for instance, so many details are positioned subtly below the surface they could go unnoticed if the album were to be played at a too-low volume.

October 2017