Accidental Memory in Case of Death

(Temporary Residence; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 4 May 2004

Matthew Cooper, the man behind all that is Eluvium, took me off-guard with last year’s spectacular Lambent Material — a stunning mixture of subtle ambience, static noise and sparse piano pieces that seamlessly melded together into one of the most consistently beautiful albums I’ve heard in the past couple of years. Though certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, Lambent, especially on key tracks like "Under The Water It Glowed," "Unfinished" and the epic "Zerthis Was a Shivering Human Image," remains a strangely accessible piece of stark ambience; and though I don’t think I need to recite the entirety of my previous review of the record, needless to say it faired partically well on my year-end list (#6 of the year) and is, even still, an album I still listen to on a regular basis.

So, then, the news of another record not even a year after Lambent’s release was very welcome, indeed. Though as more information about the project’s concept started to surface, An Accidental Memory In the Case of Death started to sound slightly like a novelty piece even before a single note of it was heard. The idea: Cooper takes some "neo-classical solo piano pieces" that he had composed previously (I think a minor misconception that has been going around is that the album was completely improvise, which isn’t actually true) and records them completely within one take without overdubs or post-production (on a single microphone, no less!). All within two hours. To be honest, the mere description of it sounds like it might either be a significant turn for a relatively new artist or just mere gimmickry for the sake of passing off a couple of phoned in sessions as a quick follow-up to one of 2003’s best records.

Well, as it turns out, Accidental Memory is neither; though the description above will probably lend a few clues as to how this EP sounds (hm, solo piano pieces from a guy that usually creates incredibly repetitious music…all in one take, too? No editing either, huh? Well that’s…wait, the entire thing, you say? All of it? Oh, ok), it does manage to erase any doubts that it is a complete toss-off. Though the skip-like ticks that swamped Lambent are thankfully absent (perhaps the only thing about his debut that I wish he’d done differently), so are any other garnishes, subtle or otherwise. True to early descriptions, Accidental Memory — at only an EP’s length, I should add — collects seven tracks of repetitious piano themes that rarely recall Lambent, but after a couple of tracks, it’s hard not to wish he’d done something — anything — with an arrangement to flesh out the ideas enough to keep it all from melding into undeniably pretty but ultimately middling record.

Not to get too far ahead of myself, though. Accidental Memory opens with the brief "An Accidental Memory," though its overture quality continues all the way to the last note of the last track, a longer, epic version of the same basic theme developed over four and a half minutes. In-between the two, Cooper doesn’t give us many surprises, but there are quite a few impressive melodies. "Genius and the Thieves" is perhaps the mini-album’s best single track, skillfully incorporating simple repetition of a basic, memorable theme without the kind of wandering that surfaces later with "Perfect Neglect" and "The Well Meaning Professor," both of which bleed over into excess (unfortunate since they take up almost half of Memory‘s running time), even if the latter starts with one of the best melodies he’s written to date. Meanwhile, "Nepenthe" and "In A Sense" return to the promise of the opening tracks, especially "Nepenthe," which rivals "Genius and the Thieves" as the record’s most memorable cut.

Accidental Memory works, but just barely so. The pieces are uniformly gorgeous and relaxing but never really develop, and since the piano is the sole instrument on the entire record, the abundance of repetition can become especially monotonous and trying, even with a handful of impressive melodies thrown in along the way. Even some light atmosphere could have given these songs the kind of life they need to be more than just a pleasent listen, but what we’re left with are the skeletal basics of songs that sound like they were written to be much more. Moreover, a little too much of the record has a saccharin, slighly melodramatic quality at times ("Professor," especially) and really, that’s kind of a letdown since he’s proved himself capable of so much more.