Album Review: Levels’ “Still”

As an improvisatory quintet, Levels started their career at Lawrence University last year with an extended play (EP), rigorous and frequent rehearsals and a performance near the end of the year. Composed of seniors Dominic Ellis on trombone, Adam Friedman providing percussion, Sam Genualdi on guitar, Sam Pratt on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and Kyle Stalsberg ’16 on viola, Levels has commissioned and premiered many works created by themselves, current students, alumni and faculty. “Still” is their debut full-length release, featuring eight pieces.

From the first chaotic few seconds to the last meditative few minutes, the album is brimming with courageous intensity. There is almost never a clear leader, allowing the five to work together as one, but the freedom exists for an individual to bubble to the top, should they choose to do so. The seemingly telepathic ensemble showcases a diverse instrumentation, but blends their different textures and timbres seamlessly, painting together with the same brush but letting different voices come out naturally.

A favorite track was the album closer, “m,” composed by senior Jason Koth. Ambient and ethereal, the piece continues to show off how well the quintet meshes with each other, but also the composer’s production skills. Adding layers of electronics and effects over acoustic instrumentation—save for Genualdi’s guitar—Koth utilizes Levels and the studio as his instruments, much like Brian Eno would. But this is still an improvisatory group, and while Koth has contributed greatly to it, the five provide the backbone. With calming swells and harmonies, “m” stands out as a means to focus on their ability to create the incredibly tranquil as opposed to the frantic and sporadic—characteristics typically associated with improvised music.

Steps ahead from their performance and even more steps ahead from their debut EP, “Distractions,” “Still” documents the five musicians’ continuing maturity and fine playing. Both releases are available on their website, levelsnewmusic.bandcamp.com.

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