Cam Butler: Save My Soul
Sometimes one has to be careful to not judge a release based on expectations rather than on its own terms. I came to Australian composer Cam Butler's Save My Soul thinking that it would feature electric guitar primarily and orchestral strings secondarily; it turns out, however, that the former is used sparingly and the greater focus is on the symphonic dimension. The opening piece, “Simple Fate,” is telling in that regard as it's almost wholly dominated by orchestral elements, with the electric guitar only conspicuously emerging for a few seconds near the track's end. Elsewhere, Butler's tremolo-laden sound emerges discreetly, more as if it's peeking through cracks in the music's surface than aggressively shouting over it. It's hardly surprising, however, that his playing is overshadowed, given the spacious sound generated by the resources at hand: a twenty-three-piece string section, harp, timpani, glockenspiel, drums, and cymbals. It also bears worth mentioning that the album is fully titled Save My Soul (Symphony No. 3), a detail I mention less for drawing attention to the seeming pretension of the title and more the understandable symphonic emphasis of the recording. It's not the first time (obviously) Butler has fashioned such a recording, as 2008 witnessed the release of Dark Times (Symphony No. 2).
Much of the material has a lilting quality due to the 3/4 pulse Butler emphasizes throughout. As the album opens, the listener is swept away by the graceful rhythms and string glissandos of “Simple Fate” before “I Was Lost,” suitably mournful in tone, presents a lovely episode of solo violin and viola playing after which the full string orchestra enters. The title track eschews the larger instrumental attack for a simpler one consisting of guitar, violin, double bass, and drums, and the result is in its quieter way more powerful for allowing the instruments' individual voices to assert themselves distinctly; certainly the violin playing by Andrea Keeble is exquisitely rendered and exerts a powerful emotional force, and Butler's largely textural presence is felt more strongly, too. He does, however, take a lovely solo turn during the plaintive “Desolation” that effectively showcases his delicate touch and soulful side. The album is at its most nakedly emotional during “Some Kind of Peace,” a carefully calibrated epic of some eleven minutes duration that conveys an affecting sense of longing—save my soul, indeed—and enough drama to fill an entire album. Enchantment and mystery abound, too, as evidenced by the entrancing dreamscape of swirling harps and shimmering strings that appears halfway through.
Though I hesitate to use the term to describe the material, given the negative association generally tied to it, Butler's music is old-fashioned in the sense of being the kind of symphonic music that's accessible and melodic. The album also argues that he could find fortune as a soundtrack composer were he so inclined, even if the classical composer label brings with it higher status—though let's not forget that lauded figures such as Bernard Hermann, Alex North, and Aaron Copland all produced memorable soundtrack work. Like theirs, Butler's writing is heavily melodic and mood-driven, and as such could easily be deployed within a film context.