Album review: ‘Zenith’ by Grayson Varn

The term “concept album” is almost redundant because, seriously, what would an album be without a concept? But narrative is another story, and the through line in Zenith, the new release by Asheville-based artist Grayson Varn, is not one of words and imagery but, instead, of vibe, flow, sonic tapestry, texture, gesture and the intersection of the organic and the synthesized.

Varn doesn’t have much social media presence — an arguably admirable quality these days. But his Instagram account is a scrapbook of nature imagery and accomplished illustration that gives insight into his personal aesthetic: a closeup of a cricket, bare tree branches shot from overhead by a drone, the iridescent feathers of a pigeon.

This sort of deep ecology is felt in the shimmying beats and resonant bell tones of “Orbiting Jupiter,” a track that pairs the earthy with the ethereal. There’s a dark sparkle captured in the layered sounds, the balance of which aligns in a kind of sonic ballet. Instruments are carefully measured and weighed against one another, but within that intentionality, there’s also freedom of movement.

“Terraform” is propelled for long moments by a wobbling pulse created by synthesized keys. When the percussion comes in, sounding akin to a hand drum, a kick drum and a shaker, it duets with static-y swirls that pan from left headphone to right.

But headphones, while more completely relaying the melodies to the ear, almost get in the way. The is music for dancing as much as for chilling. The instrumental tracks aren’t lessened by the lack of lyrics. Lead song “Parallax” has an intro that recalls an orchestra tuning: the plink of a piano, the thunder of timpani. But by about the 40-second mark, a discernible groove is established. The song glowers and stomps, then waxes smooth, round and open.

“Dawn” is rife with birdsong and burbling melody; “Coati” suggests the plucked notes of a thumb piano, the bouncy rhythms of a vibraphone and warm, low tones from, perhaps, a djembe. The track thrums with biorhythms, almost like an internal landscape (if we were predisposed to consider the workings of our organs as symphonic rather than gross).

“Solstice” opens with a sonic drift: falling snow, perhaps, or a dawn hush. If solstice — that biannual marker of maximum sunlight and maximum darkness — took place in a plush lounge at the edge of a gently lapping tide with the sky awash in deep red and orange hues, Varn’s interpretation would be the soundtrack.

But this, and all the songs, regardless of how truly they score the environmental phenomena they’re named for, are made for dreaming to, swaying to, partying to, breathing slowly and evenly to. Zenith, rather like the musician’s Instagram account, is an examination of life’s intimate moments and intricate workings: a peeling back of the layers, a gaze into the microcosm. But — as the burst of laughter at the start of final track “Partly Cloudy” alludes — it’s also about the whole, the big picture, the vast and undeniable joy to be found and celebrated in simple moments.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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