Released: August 2015
Willis Earl Beal comes across as a mightily enigmatic fellow. A recent press release describes his many births and rebirths in different places – Chicago, Missouri, Albuquerque, New York – and at different moments in his life. He feels that his voice “can serve as an example of some kind of freedom”- and here, on second full-length album Noctunes, it is easy to understand why. Meditative, ethereal and utterly original, the sound of Beal’s warm and soulful voice blends seamlessly with his ambitiously formless, abstract compositions.
Most of the tracks on here very much stray away from what one would expect from, well, any kind of artist. Noctunes is a collection of malleable, abstract songs that value melody and atmosphere more highly than rhythm and structure. From opener Under You, a darkly intense stringed piece with little more than the performances of Beal and a female backing vocalist on top, it is clear that adhering to the rules isn’t on the American singer’s mind.
Percussion and bass are notably absent for the vast majority of Noctunes, only making fleeting appearances on the odd track, most importantly Like A Box. Here, despite the lack of such backing being one of the defining characteristics of the rest of Beal’s work, the speedy drilling sound of an electric kick drum adds a pounding heart beat to another abstract and celestial sounding track. It follows the same path as most other songs, aiming for the unexpected and taking its listeners on a mesmeric journey, but with a little more behind it has the drive necessary to shake things up when his otherwise Eno-esque meditation is in need of a little oomph.
Some will find that Beal’s style wears a little thin as the album goes on. Its third act is pretty unremarkable, and ideas, sounds and even chord structures are reproduced with little to excite or intrigue. It begins as an album that could send one to sleep with its lullaby qualities and lack of pace, and one gets the impression that Beal is presuming the listener has actually dozed off by Nocturnes final few tracks, as he doesn’t seem quite as bothered as earlier. This is a mere blemish on an otherwise compelling album, an LP comprised of tracks that produce something truly unique.
Atmospheric production, stunning vocal performances and a complete lack of respect for form and structure make up an album that establishes Willis Earl Beal as one of 2015’s most remarkable new acts. Having finally found an identity for himself, Beal is going to places other artists cannot even imagine, and his personalised brand of dreamy, ambient art is something to be celebrated, even if some tracks end up a little wide of the mark. This is one of the most original and refreshing albums of recent years.