Album Reviews

Bill Nelson: Chance Encounters In The Garden Of Lights (Esoteric Recordings)

Bill Nelson
Chance Encounters In The Garden Of Lights
Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red

Bill Nelson is best known for founding the progressive rock band Be Bop Deluxe, which ran its course over six albums in the Seventies, making its mark on the genre and being one of the signature bands of the era. It was solo, though, that Nelson really made a name for himself, becoming a prolific artist who was never afraid to take creative risks, commercial considerations be damned. While maintaining a major label profile, he concurrently formed Cocteau Records, which served as an outlier for his more experimental work.

Released in 1987, Chance Encounters In The Garden Of Lights was his most ambitious project to date. Nelson had become interested in compiling short, impressionistic song sketches and incidental music into a larger, cohesive whole; in 1984, he had released a series of four albums in this style, featuring bits and pieces that fell in between one and two minutes in length, but this was the first time he released a massive collection as a singular work. It consists of two albums: The Angel At The Western Window and The Book Of Inward Conversation, whilst including a 7” single featuring an eight-song suite entitled Ecclesia Gnostica (Music For The Interior Church) that was omitted from later editions of the album.

The Angel At The Western Window is much more of an impressionistic piece; of its twenty-three songs, only five break the two-minute mark. It’s to Nelson’s credit that he masterfully sequenced the album, as these little nuggets flow nicely into one another. Thus, the listening experience might seem daunting, but the fading of one track into another works quite well. For instance, the sunny “Villefranche Interior” soon gives way to the daunting, dark “Night Tides,” which then folds over into the dreamy “First Memory,” yet the unaware listener wouldn’t notice the transitions. (For the devout Nelson fan, one will appreciate the additional fourteen bonus tracks included on disc one of this set; as they enhance the listening experience whilst never treading on or overwhelming the listening experience that Nelson originally intended.)

The Book Of Inward Conversation is, for the most part, a more conventional album; song lengths are varied, and while he does include a few short pieces, the songs are longer—though interestingly enough, the way Nelson transitions numerous ideas within the course of these longer works, one senses that his longer pieces are simply these minute long sketches weaved together into a cohesive whole. Thus, in the same way that one could listen to the first album in this set and not realize that two or three songs have passed, one can listen to numbers like “A Bird Of The Air Shall Carry Thy Voice” and “Evocation Of A Radiant Childhood” and not realize that they’re listing to one song. Which is what makes the bonus single Ecclesia Gnostica (Music For The Interior Church) so appealing; it’s a gorgeous, quasi-religious number that sounds positively cathedral-like, music for meditation and wistful contemplation.

Since the album’s release, Nelson has continued to explore the ideas and styles he explored here–as well as ideas that bear little resemblance to it–and his discography is vast, diverse, and most definitely rewards the listener who ventures into it. His reputation of being a master of ambient sounds is well earned, and Chance Encounters In The Garden Of Lights is proof of that; it is a massive work of art that rewards the listener willing to immerse themselves in its depths.

 

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