The list of artist links included at Chad Kettering's website would appear to say much about his own music, with representative electronic-ambient figures such as Steve Brand, Hollan Holmes, Byron Metcalf, Robert Rich, and Steve Roach among those Kettering includes. Yet while his Facebook page displays ‘Ambient Electronic Music' as the genre he's operating within, it's an imperfect label for his third album Pathways. Put simply, the music is far too eventful for it to qualify as ambient, at least insofar as one assesses it in accordance with the well-known definition that defines ambient as material that one can attend to as much as ignore. And despite its mystical cover imagery, Pathways isn't New Age either, even though an occasional passage suggests some degree of kinship with the style.
Anything but wallpaper music, Pathways is an ambitious, ten-part composition that assumes the character of a full-scale symphonic work, despite the fact that no orchestra performs on the fifty-minute recording. Instead, Kettering uses digital synthesizers and digital samplers to simulate an orchestra and builds upon the core sound by playing Native American flutes and, on the album-closing “Standing Upon the Edge,” trumpet (in fact, Kettering was at one time a professional classical trumpet player) and by featuring contributions from cellist Kari Kettering (of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra) and vocalist Francesca Genco. As Pathways advances, dynamic contrasts are repeatedly explored, with fortissimo passages regularly alternating with gentler sequences.
The recording's ambitious reach is established at the outset when “Openings” presents an orchestrally rich overture packed with not only strings and choir singing but also skittering electronic rhythms and synthesizers. The animated character of the overture continues when an undercurrent of rapid-fire keyboard patterns in “Finding My Way” lays the foundation for declamatory horn statements and hushed vocal utterances (“it's an illusion...”). Though things take a gentler turn during “The Fire Within” when Kari Kettering's luscious cello playing rises above swelling string textures, the piece morphs into a heavy, almost rock-styled instrumental as its eight minutes unfold (her playing also enhances the tribal-styled “Closer to You” and is heard to particularly beautiful effect during “Vanished Dreams”). Elsewhere, Genco's emotional expressiveness gives “The Infinity Mirror” the feel of a lamentation, and in a piece that plays like a New Age-World music fusion, downtempo rhythms and synth washes lend “Free Falling” a soothing and sultry quality that's not unwelcome when so much of the surrounding material is intense in nature.Though there are obviously dramatic differences between the composers' works, Kettering's recording invites comparison to Mike Oldfield's (more the material he issued during the ‘90s) in the sense that both produce long-form, multi-part works of immense scale and dynamic contrast (Pathways even opens with a rapid piano pattern distantly reminiscent of the opening of Tubular Bells); one key difference is, of course, that guitar figures prominently within Oldfield's recordings, whereas the instrument is absent on Kettering's, its place taken by piano and cello. Admittedly, the material on Pathways is in certain moments so grandiose in presentation and scale that it verges on bombastic, but there's no denying the integrity of the music and the high level of craft involved in its production, and that three years were involved in the recording's creation doesn't come as a huge surprise given the quality of its content.