Thomas Isbister – #8: 13th Floor Album Review

Thomas Isbister could be the most prolific musician in New Zealand with #8 being his ninth album in just over two years. Like the paintings which grace all the covers, it is music of Impressionist textures and ambience. Rather than the immediate gratification of a sugar burst of Pop earworms, the hooks reveal themselves on repeated listening.

First album #1 was released in November 2019, which interestingly spans the Pandemic era that has encompassed the world. Within a month the first reports of Covid 2.0 broke in the media.

The opening songs here are Bah Bah and Black Sheep. House music of soft Pop Jazz. The Cool of the French New Wave of Cinema with images of skinny models in plaid mini-skirts, smoking Gitanes and scat-singing soothingly. Some Gypsy Jazz and Eastern European Klezmer tones are added in. A muted discordant horn squawks towards the end to add some tension.

Super Sheeple. The only proper vocal on the album comes from Folkie Emily Fairlight. She sings an affect-free, deadpan lower register voice about trying to point to the cold place/ They must be sitting on the toilet. Seductive melodies carrying a curious unease deep inside.

All the song titles are references to sheep. Like abstract painting it leaves us free to interpret our own impressions. The mood of the music is light and humorous at one level and also more complex as the different layers reveals themselves.

People here are like sheep, as our Aussie neighbour’s continually chide us. That divide that has become stark and apparent in New Zealand now.

Song For Little Lambs is a soundtrack for country life. The artist lives in Canterbury. This sounds like Calf-Club Day where rural primary schools spend a day parading their pet lambs and calves at the end of spring. A traditional fertility rite of sorts. Usually, a townie school is invited over to learn that food doesn’t come from the supermarket. And get to smell barbecued sausages mixed with manure and hay.

Spy Sheep is melodically off-centered and eccentric. A dominant drone which incorporates hobo jungle rhythms and fast Be-Bop Jazz riffing to scatter the song at the end, rather than a tidy finish. The drums dominate throughout.

Even-Toed Ungulate sounds like that urban jungle being overlaid by a rain forest. Dark shadows with flashes of colour. One of the visuals associated with this album is a cartoon of a toucan riding on the back of an elephant.

Bleat-Repeat is a good example of how kaleidoscopic this album can get. Less guitar presence than on previous albums but we hear some Surf stylings and twanging melodies. A low smoky saxophone adds some Bogart-off-Casablanca noir moodiness.

Thomas Isbister produces an Impressionist virtual-reality view of this environment and these times with this Art Gallery music. Music to awaken the lambs from their silence.

Rev Orange Peel                        

Give #8 a listen on Spotify

Thomas Isbister