Matthew Stewart: A World Bathed In Sunlight
Spotted Peccary Music

Given that A World Bathed In Sunlight is Matthew Stewart's full-length instrumental debut, his name likely will be unfamiliar to many, even though he's been contributing to Spotted Peccary releases and live performances by other artists, among them Jon Jenkins and Deborah Martin, for a number of years. That detail helps explain, however, why the ambient-electronic release, co-produced by Stewart and Martin, is as accomplished as it is; it certainly doesn't sound like the work of a fledgling artist struggling to get things right on his first outing.

That the hour-long recording is a concept album is indicated by its track titles and Stewart's own description of it as a “musical chronicle of a fictional story [whose] story arc follows the destruction of earth, the escape of a few seeds of humanity, and the discovery of a new world.” It's a timely concept, given the woeful environmental state of our own planet and emerging discussions about the possibility of living elsewhere in the universe. Certainly there's a dark side to the album theme, but there's optimism, too, specifically in the notion of rebirth and new beginnings. Yet while it's possible to draw equivalences between a given track's music and the story-related event alluded to by the track title, no such connections need be drawn for the album to be enjoyed, especially when it's almost wholly instrumental (the singular vocal element is contributed by Martin to “Who Stays, Who Goes,” though, emerging as a wordless moan, it largely blends seamlessly into the instrumental fabric).

A few tracks bring me back to a couple of Mark Isham's early albums, specifically Castalia (Virgin, 1998) and Tibet (Windham Hill, 1999), and that they do so flatters Stewart and his own creation; in fact, it wouldn't be stretching it too far to state that the tracks in question could pass for pieces from those albums with the trumpet stripped out and piano playing emphasized in its place (“Unearthing the Arks” even includes a bass part that strongly calls to mind the beautiful contributions bassist Doug Lunn made to Tibet and other Isham releases). Similar to them, Stewart's in places invites a New Age classification, though again that's not meant as a criticism but merely an acknowledgment of the music's often soothing and serene character.

Stewart's skills as a multi-instrumentalist are on display throughout, though he's never self-indulgent or flamboyant, and his gifts as a composer are equally evident. There's no better argument for Stewart's gifts than the resplendent title track, which opens the set with elegant piano melodies bathed in ambient washes and subtle dashes of percussion; melancholy in tone, it's also undeniably lovely as well as a compelling scene-setter. Moods of varying kinds emerge in the settings that follow, all of them fashioned with a fastidious attention to detail and an unerring grasp of proportion and design, and melody (many of them uplifting and pretty), atmosphere, and rhythm are given equal attention. Whether the track in question is the stirring “Last Day on Earth,” spirited “The Journey Away,” or elegiac “The Dust Settles,” synthesizers, electronics, guitar, bass, percussion, and, of course, piano work hand in hand to produce evocations of immense sophistication and grandeur on this exemplary addition to the Spotted Peccary catalogue.

December 2016