Album Review: Big Noble - First Light

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

Twelve years ago, a New York band called Interpol released a song called "NYC". The third track on the band's debut LP Turn on the Bright Lights and the song that makes reference of the album's title within, it's the first of many emotional high points on the record. But more importantly, it's a distinct localizer that gives the whole of the record (and the band, at that time) a proper grounding. A major player in the New York indie rock revival, Interpol was, and for many always will be, a New York band, and nothing spells it more clearly than this track. But Paul Banks' haunting cries of detachment couldn't hold the spartan power they possess without the chariot of Daniel Kessler's screaming guitar arrangements. With a brutal tremolo, Kessler embodies the biting wind and the freezing cold that define the dark night in which the track takes place more than any song has since.

That being said, when Sonos decided to do an exhibition last autumn dedicated to the sounds of NYC, who better to turn to than Kessler and his sonic partner in crime, Joseph Fraioli? Together as Big Noble, the two created a sweeping, omnipresent soundscape that embodies their city like nothing else has ever before. Their debut record Big Light curates the many themes they assembled for their Sounds of NYC exhibit into a proper record. The result is a beautiful and ambient work, less of a soundtrack and more a tribute to living in the hustle and bustle of winter nights under the bright lights of New York City.

In a piece from Noisey, Daniel Kessler recommended that First Light is "best heard on headphones while walking about the city, traveling, or commuting on the subway". He's right - I tried it out today taking public transport to and from work and over to Ballard for an errand later. Big Noble tracks essentially a two part structure - first, there is Kessler's endless sonic palette, made up of reverberated guitars and synth pads echoed to infinity. Tracks like "Atlantic Din" are impossibly thick. You can pick out the faint pattering of a piano beating out a circling melody, but only barely underneath the synthesizers and guitar vibrations. Next comes Fraioli with the true localization - he puts the sound in "the sounds of New York". You can hear subway trains clinking and footsteps down stairs and blaring taxi horns stretched to infinity. The whole thing is a bit of a Lynchian dream. In fact, there are bits and pieces of First Light that echo The Air is on Fire in scale and purpose. But again, the end goal of Big Noble's project isn't soundtracking. It's not Pictures at an Exhibition - rather, it's more impressionistic. Kessler and Fraioli take the real and the impossible and mix them together for a painting of the city that refuses to picture it any less massive or mysterious than it is.

Aside from all of the impressionism and ambient hoity-toity, Big Noble will satisfy fans of Kessler's work in Interpol too. Much of First Light echoes the seemingly endless guitar textures of Interpol's middle records, Our Love To Admire and the criminally underrated fourth self-titled work from 2010. On both of these, the band lets the cold dark of Kessler's masterful guitar work take a front seat position. You'll hear a bit of "The Lighthouse" in songs like "Pedal" and "Peg". "Weatherman Accountable" and "Autumn" both have guitar parts ripped almost directly from Interpol tracks akin to "Pace is the Trick" and "Lights". But ultimately, comparison only does Big Noble so much credit. The real beauty here is how Kessler has completely repurposed his signature guitar style to a totally ambient landscape with the help of Fraioli. The two have created something really beautiful and haunting with Big Noble.

Sometimes the cold hurts on First Light. The frozen landscapes can remind you a lot of the city you live in, regardless of which it might be. There's just something about human nature in cities that binds us all together - one that "NYC" captured perfectly over 12 years ago. "I'm sick of spending these lonely nights training myself not to care", Paul Banks sings. You can feel that sentiment on First Light on tracks like "Affiliates" and "Traveler", where the endless soundscape makes you feel a bit lonely, especially when accompanied with Kessler's recommended listening strategy, which in and of itself is self-induced isolation in a crowded room. But other times, you are reminded of the brilliant lights and you remember why we all learn to navigate through the loneliness. Whether it's the first light of sunrise over the Atlantic or the last light of sunset over the Puget Sound, songs like "Stay Gold" and "Vikings" give the light all credit where it is due. For a debut LP, Big Noble have made a really delightful statement with First Light. Should you choose to add their noise the collection of your daily life, you'll find yourself slowing the daily grind down a bit to see what glimmers of hope that you might have missed.

First Light is out now on iTunes. There is no word of a physical release of the record at this date. Learn more about the Sonos Sounds of NYC project that birthed First Light here. Daniel Kessler is currently touring with Interpol. Joseph Fraioli is hard at work doing sound design on a variety of upcoming films.

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