Album of the Day: The Cinematic Orchestra, “To Believe”

 

The Cinematic Orchestra likes to take its time. Led by founder Jason Swinscoe and longtime collaborator Dominic Smith, the London outfit’s catalog stands at just four studio albums in 20 years, with To Believe their first in 12. Their discography is rounded out by a pair of far-flung soundtracks, one for Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent masterwork Man with a Movie Camera and, in 2008, another for the Walt Disney documentary The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos. Those detours make sense for the duo—the three studio albums surrounding the scores are equally full of plush movie jazz. The studio albums’ best moments still astonish—the way the opening stalker’s bass line that kicks off “Durian” on their 1999 debut is cut just short with an abrupt hard edit before it loops back around; or the billowing arrangement that fans out from the center of the ten-minute “Burn Out,” from 2002’s Every Day.

Far from settling into a well-heeled rut, the best moments on To Believe are even more opulent than the Cinematic Orchestra’s earlier work. Built, vaguely, around the titular theme (belief, that is), the album has its ponderous moments, but the group makes them work in context. Roots Manuva intoning strenuously on “A Caged Bird/Imitations of Life” by itself would be an iffy proposition. But here, with the strings like sunlight glinting through the window at sunset? Yes, please.

It’s rare when an album peaks with its two longest tracks, but that’s the case with To Believe. The instrumental “Lessons,” placed in the album’s middle, follows a circular, eight-bar tune with orchestration that stretches out like an endless horizon for nine lustrous minutes. The 11-minute finale, “A Promise,” sung by Heidi Vogel, is so full of aural smoke it probably violates fire department codes. Violins billow as Vogel tremulously hits arcing falsetto notes; the key change around the four-minute mark is as shamelessly thrilling as a vintage Spielberg gotcha. And when a rhythm section finally breaks into things a good while later, the track’s hurtling momentum is all the Cinematic Orchestra’s—like a dare to the auteur who could match it.

-Michaelangelo Matos

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