In August of 2016, Sam Shepherd and the backing band that makes up the live version of his project Floating Points convened at a rehearsal space near Joshua Tree, CA to prepare for an upcoming US tour. Shepherd and company were so “struck by [the] physical beauty… [and] the sonic reflections from the rock formations” that they decided to write and record a few tracks. The fruits of that labor, Reflections – Mojave Desert, comprise almost 30 minutes of new music, available now as an EP and accompanying video (directed by Anna Diaz Ortuño). Both iterations are enjoyable enough but ultimately insubstantial, with a less than satisfying ratio of content to filler.
Technically, there are five (plus one) tracks on the record (the “plus one” being the first five tracks fused together in a “continuous mix,” which is more or less what you’ll hear/see when watching the video.) But the first track, “Mojave Desert,” is not so much two and a half minutes of free-standing environmental noise and ambient wash as it is a nebulous intro to the second track, “Silurian Blue.” Taken together, that nine-minute stretch is by far the album’s most fully formed bit of music.
It begins with desert air and the humming of idle amplifiers. A few moments later subtly shimmering plates of sound start fading in and out of existence, with a few bursts of feedback thrown in for atmosphere and/or attitude. Shepherd’s entrance on Fender Rhodes, its familiar electric plink-plunking awash in echo, signals the proper start of “Silurian Blue.” He’s joined by Alex Reeve on electric guitar, at first picking sparsely, idly, and once again bathed in echo. Matthew Kirkis also plays guitar, at points augmenting the atmospheres on an ARP Odyssey. Susumu Mukai adds some short, melodic, upper range bursts on the electric bass, and (once again with ample echo) Leo Taylor bangs the drums, regular fills ornamenting the moments when the group lands on some very satisfying downbeats together.
The composite ends up sounding like it could pass for a heavy ballad on a Return to Forever album – that is, fusion lite, or groove-based late-seventies prog – that rocks out for a while before bottoming out so that Shepherd and Kirkis can simmer in the background – on Hammond organ and synth, respectively – while Reeve’s insistent licks (and a respectable amount of guitar face) will the band back into hard rock territory. Visually (and aurally), “Silurian” is so very much Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii, mixed perhaps with a notable hunk of Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis.
The next couple of tracks too belong together, the noodly synth loop of “Kites” serving as both intro and outro to the much longer stretch of white-knuckle rock in “Kelso Dunes.” The sound in “Kites” comes from an EMS Synthi, playing a haphazardly arpeggiated figure that repeats, over and over, as it’s sped up and slowed down to create a swirling and hypnotic soundscape. The real character of the track comes not from the synth but from the hyper-directional parabolic microphone used to capture the sound, making these the moments on the EP that most successfully capture the “sonic reflections” of the natural space that the band says inspired the music. On video, this stretch also features the most compelling and original visuals, which at other times contain too much practice footage and rely too heavily on time-lapse. Shepherd can be seen roaming the striking landscape, headphones on, the large white dish of the parabolic mic in hand, as if taking precise measurements on the surface of Mars. At one point the video shifts to brief snapshots of the flora, fauna and other natural elements of the landscape, edited to match the notes of the synth as it rapidly cycles through its repeating sequence.
All of this melds almost imperceptibly into the droning start of “Kelso Dunes,” which eventually adds a click track of a drumbeat that wants to gallop but instead sounds lockstep and forced. While Taylor hammers away – sounding at times like he’s doing his best just to keep up – the rest of the band members each play their own static loops, tending toward fuzzy, swirling textures instead of clear melodic or harmonic content. They all expend some energy turning the heat up, then cranking it down to a low boil, only to gradually turn it back up again before another big climax and drop-off.
The suite ends with another nebulous, echo-filled soundscape (“Lucerne Valley”) and a dreamy shot of the starry sky above the Mojave Desert. The video, like the music, is competently produced but not particularly inspired, aside from a few standout moments. With 2015’s Elaenia, Sam Shepherd showed that Floating Points could produce singular, meticulous soundscapes worth immersing yourself in. But on Reflections – Mojave Desert the ideas, though promising, are in most cases not developed enough to make you want to revisit.