Robert Scott Thompson & James Johnson
The more I listened to the collaborative album between Robert Scott Thompson and James Johnson, Forgotten Places, the more I tried to isolate what it was that Robert “brought to the party” which made this CD such an astounding piece of work. I heard definite elements of James Johnson’s trademark minimalist ambient piano and keyboards (some of which were new on this CD), but I also knew there was a musical element that represented a marked, if not a drastic departure, for the man (Johnson) I once referred to as the heir apparent to Brian Eno.
It was, perhaps, the twelfth or fifteenth listening. I was preparing Sunday dinner for a (quite ill) Kathryn, who was asleep on the couch. The setting sun was streaming into the kitchen from the back sunroom¹s windows and Onyx was outside harassing squirrels on a perfect early autumn evening. I felt a sense of calm brought on by the combination of hearing this music I loved along with performing an activity that I loved (cooking). Wham! That’s when it hit me! James Johnson has always worked in long-form music, including his destined-to-be-classic effort with Stephen Philips, Lost at Dunn’s Lake (an album-length piece of music). Robert, on the other hand, is consummately talented at piecing together shorter songs, unified by an intangible feel, yet still quite varied (if one breaks down the music technically). That was the key to this unique album! And that is also why I’m prepared to make a statement that’s quite bold, even for a critic like me (who’s prone to wax eloquently about many albums I enjoy).
Forgotten Places may well be The Pearl for the new millennium. If you’re not familiar with The Pearl, it’s a considerably older recording, a collaboration between Brian Eno and Harold Budd (two musicians more or less credited with creating the genre of minimal ambient music). The Pearl is considered, by many, to be one of the finest and most influential albums ever recorded in this genre. And yes, I’m now fully aware what I have written about Forgotten Places. And yes, it’s that good.
Ten tone poems, each unique and suffused with an amazing balancing act of emotional impact — serene yet brimming with tension, tragic yet achingly beautiful, mournful yet content, and melancholic yet hopeful. This truly is the perfect union of two superlative musical talents!
The music on Forgotten Places can be as restrained as gentle, minimal piano notes suspended over a soft whisper of synthesizers, or it can carry strains of synth strings, synth choruses, overt electronic effects, or even synthesized woodwinds to flesh the sound out until the music is like a miniaturist piece of neoclassical music. Like an assorted collection of fine gems, e.g., jade, opal, sapphire, onyx, ruby, and, well, pearl, each song on the album sparkles in its own individual way.
The opening number, “A Slow Return,” will sound instantly familiar to Johnson fans, with minimal piano accented by both a solitary synth string and string section, along with hushed synth choruses. The sound is so fragile and delicate, yet so beautiful that it fills the room with a warm glow. “Resonant Landscape” starts off with a cello-like sound, soon joined by other strings (a viola, perhaps), evoking comparisons to Tim Story, until the subtle dissonance of what sounds like a flute briefly flits into view. As the song develops, it becomes a duet of sorts between floating synth chords and piano, with occasional contributions from a solo violin. The piece has a fuller sound than the first cut, yet the comparison to Story’s brilliant miniaturism is right on the mark. As stated above, the music deftly maneuvers between polar opposite evocations – peaceful yet with a thread of regret running through it…an unasked question or a word of comfort not offered in a time of need perhaps. Heavy duty stuff? Well, my emotional response to the album was pretty intense, but the music on Forgotten Places is not in the least bit oppressive. That’s the genius of these two musicians, i.e., their combined ability to weave such complex and deep emotions into music that can be heard as something relatively simple (this is, of course, the very essence of minimalism when it’s done right, as it’s performed here).
While I have only described two songs, I’m aware that I have to rein in my enthusiasm somewhat or no one will finish reading this review due to its length. Again, I want to stress that the individual selections on Forgotten Places brim with individuality, yet the common thread of piano, synth, and a minimalist approach winds its way throughout all ten cuts. There are moments of dissonance and atonality, but never in the least are these harsh or obtrusive. Instead, these occurrences (and they are rare, believe me) serve as brilliant counterpoints, effectively undercutting any possibility (remote as it would be otherwise) that the listener would feel the music is too warm or too “pretty.” Cuts like “Innocence Lost,” which approach a darker texture, with more overt spacey synth effects, still retain a core of humanity, the same way that Tim Story does likewise when he eschews piano (such as on Eyelids of the Sea from Beguiled).
Favorite songs for me would be the opening number (“A Slow Return“), “Stolen Moment,” “Then & Now” (with gorgeous use of synth choruses and synth woodwinds – or so they sound to me), “Low and Clear,” which contains brief environmental sounds (water lapping at the shore) amid a less melancholic use of keyboards and synths, the lovely but quite sad “Malay,” with cello, violin, piano and keyboards, and the album-closing “Endless,” which ends the CD on a somewhat optimistic, yet not necessarily cheery note.
Fans of The Pearl should (obviously) order this CD immediately! So should fans of either of the two artists (Budd or Eno) who recorded that album. In addition, lovers of Tim Story¹s work, and those of you out there who own (and love) the late Dan Hartman’s New Green Clear Blue will also find this CD to your liking, I’d wager. Unless you are almost zealously committed to only long-form ambient music or are loathe to listen to piano mixed in with electronic keyboards, I would be amazed if you don’t enjoy (to put it mildly) Forgotten Places as much as I did. Whether or not you feel it deserves to be compared to The Pearl, I can’t say. In my opinion, if it doesn’t equal that masterpiece, it comes as damn close to it as anyone ever will. Kudos to James and Robert. Need I say it? My highest recommendation.
– Bill Binkelman, Wind and Wire
Deep, expansive tones reverberate soothingly throughout the ten tracks that comprise this very pretty work. Sparse piano echoes across air, clinging to delicate drones and light, flowing synthesizers. As on past works by Johnson, unmistakable references to Budd and Eno abound without being derivative. Robert Scott Thompson is almost too perfect a partner, as their similar styles meld so seamlessly that I would not hazard a guess as to who plays what besides Johnson’s beautiful piano. The rich atmospheric sounds and textures permeating the disc are representative of past work by both artists. For example, I could picture “Resonant Landscape” as a lost track from either Johnson’s Surrender or Unity CDs, or Thompson’s The Silent Shore. The music is precariously yet perfectly balanced at a midpoint between bright and sad. It could be music to languish in at night time or to relish in the early morning hours. The experiences would be totally different, but the effect would be equally pleasant. Some pieces do lend themselves more to one mood or time than another. “Innocence Lost” and “Malay” definitely lean toward the melancholy, whereas “Low & Clear” has a lighter character to it, and is distinguishable as the only track without piano. Light or dark, a thoroughly relaxing and luxurious feel is maintained throughout.
– Phil Derby — Sequences Magazine, United Kingdom
The initial listening session for the “Forgotten Places” release was so evocative in its nature that I just closed my eyes and drifted along in a lush velvet cocoon of soothing sonic tapestry. Little did I realize what an odyssey that moment’s decision would become.
As our friends “across the pond” would be wont to say, in audiophile reviewing styles of late when something is outstandingly good, Johnson and Thompson are “Breathtakingly Brilliant” together. So good in fact that I should really just state that “Forgotten Places” is a veritable “shoo-in” as one of the Quintessential Ambient/Space releases for 2001 and one should add this disc to the library collection post haste and certainly without hesitation. But interjecting that notion at this juncture should only pose the question ” Why? “. Good question my friend as therein lies a tale to spin.
At one point of an early morning reverie, I posed a few questions to myself. “How many times can I return to the well and find an utterly enthralling&ldots; yet significantly different listening experience”? Could the concept and execution of the compiled tracks of this release be the point at which the art of playing and recording music transcends and becomes an art form unto itself? Were Johnson and Thompson cognizant of the spellbinding nature of what was being woven into the individual threads let alone the overall theme of what was to become “Forgotten Places“? Is it just my own fertile imagination that seems to allow a sense of written word descriptions that follow a varied plot which utilizes varying characters and plays out like a sonic journey of epic soundtrack proportions?
Still, on a quest to answer the aforementioned questions, at least in my own mind, I set aside an afternoon, which turned out to be a windy and rainy one, to perform a marathon, repeated, listening session with “Forgotten Places.” A fire was stoked and blazing within the hearth as I settled in with the Musical Fidelity A3 CD player driving the Musical Fidelity X-Can v2 tube armed headphone amp and my ear-speakers of choice, the Sennheiser HD-600’s. What transpired, until interruption by a Fed-Ex delivery, was a four hour plus session in which Johnson and Thompson treated these ears to four chapters of the finest sonic listening pleasures I can ever recall experiencing. The collaborative talent manifested between these two gentlemen has completely re-written the book on Ambient/Space Music sound sculpting. The repetition of tracks served to merely highlight the magic that lies within the tracks of “Forgotten Places.” Each moment that I began to fixate upon a particular passage and melody the music had the effect of triggering memories of forgotten times, places, events and people from my own lifetime or weaving brand new thoughts and journeys to dwell upon. Even though I felt I was becoming comfortable and familiar with the tracks, they individually retained that uncanny ability to transform and become a chameleon upon successive listening. Aside from the fact that the work as a whole still remained consistent in its capability of transporting the listener through new and not remembered soundscapes I remain at a loss for words when it comes to describing precisely how this has been achieved.
One final seed to plant within or to impart upon you, the reader, is the uncanny way with which “Forgotten Places” will play to each and every varied mood with which you approach it. The depth and engaging level of interaction between the music and the listener sets an unprecedented, stellar, sonic achievement. And oh what a delectable palette of sonic treats awaits your ears.
Both artists are known for possessing a penchant for ambient long-form productions, especially James Johnson. They both have a mercurial approach to sound sculpting, sonic sound treatments, layering and production mastering. Track after track I was astounded by the depth and intricacy of the sound treatments and production techniques that surrounded their individual instrument voicing signatures. The interplay of each so delicately woven between the two artists layered melodies. And that mentions nothing of the treasure trove of sonic ear candy that abounds within each track. Be it the 2:12 “Then & Now” or the 9:21 “Low and Clear” I still am not positive that I have heard, or at the least recognized, all that is contained within the realm of “Forgotten Places.” Even after the more than fifty playback sessions which now merely comprise the embarkation point for the odyssey I alluded to at the beginning of this review.
Share the odyssey of a lifetime through James Johnson and Robert Scott Thompson monumental achievement and open yourself to that which lies within, hidden, untapped, in “Forgotten Places.”
– Bear — Ambient Visions
Robert Scott Thompson has spent a great deal of time in the “perpendicular universe.” James Johnson has been flirting with that zone for quite some time. On Forgotten Places, they make that journey together. The long-awaited collaboration between Robert and James is now available! And it is a sonic treasure! Robert’s recent focus has been on his experimental and computerized avant-garde sound designs. James has blossomed into one of the preeminent minimalists of the new millennium.
This release has it all! It is packed with gentle ambiance, drifting minimalism and soothing nature samples. There is even some evidence of Robert’s experimental stylings, but the disc is mostly soft expansive minimalism. Both artists are right at home in that arena. The smooth refrains and sweeping synth washes surround the samples, and a solemn acoustic piano augments the electronics. Deep listeners will explore the depths of pastoral beauty and relaxation. The emotional and spiritual investments are high stakes. Robert and James both expressed how smooth and effortless the exchange of ideas has been. Each recalled that there was a synergy at play that was devoid of ego. The result is a gentle ride to the intensity of the perpendicular worlds.
– Jim Brenholts
Forgotten Places is an excellent and breathy recording with lush piano elegies awash in a deep sonic fabric that is profoundly reminiscent of Brian Eno, as well as James Johnson and Robert Scott Thompson’s previous work. This is an excellent recording and one that explores a new sonic ambiance, as well as carrying a profoundly holistic vibe and a sound so serene that soothes and relaxes. Forgotten Places is a top pick and one that you should certainly take the time to listen to, as the organic feel that’s documented on this recording is hard to find in even the genre’s most admired and influential recordings.
– Matt Borghi
The journey has begun! To Forgotten Places, by James Johnson and Robert Scott Thompson. The aural scenes encompass all the serenity and beauty lost in an ordinary day of hard work, strife– toiling to find ones’ self in a world of myriad emotions. Sit back. Relax. Let this ambient journey take you to sound fields reminiscent and provocative of life’s simple pleasure: peace. Upon your travels, decide your fate as you contemplate the ether world where dreams have endured…in timeless, Forgotten Places.
– Pat Brent Host/Producer “The Sunday Morning Cafe”
Forgotten Places (2001) does not reveal its strength right away, but this album has become one of my 25 most favorite ambient CDs. When I choose ambient music these days, it is mostly to either provide a background to something I am studying and want zero distractions or to dilute music with lyrics, so I don’t feel overloaded by meaning and have a chance to reflect on it. I often load my cd changer with five discs, two or three of them being classical, world, ambient jazz or ambient. When I choose my ambient music, I still want it to… feel alive. To me Brian Eno’s music is alive, I sense the spirit within Music For Airports, for example. I have listened to a lot of ambient music which sounds atmospheric and has this cosmic feel to it, which I love, but I guess it is the big bang theory cosmos, quite empty inside and just not for me. Forgotten Places is full of spirit; it brings calming peace; it relaxes but motivates you as well.
Forgotten Places is the debut collaboration between two of space music’s most interesting personalities, James Johnson and Robert Scott Thompson. While the duo has as individuals been exploring slightly different areas of the genre, their talents combined yield a wonderful album that is very soothing, reassuring and beautiful as in the first moments of a bright summer sunrise — a prelude to the new day.
As the title implies, Forgotten Places is concerned with music that evokes impressionistic memories and moods like those of having been through somewhere a while back; although we’re not sure if the space occupied was physical or cerebral. Incorporating airy synth pads, slow reverberant piano solos, and field recordings from various natural environments, the duo realizes ten subtle sonic vignettes that open slowly, blossom and then fade into the misty distance. Forgotten Places is a very visual album, with the listener experiencing each track similar to the way the mind accesses and recreates its memories; at times with crystal clarity and at others rosy, with a bit of fog around the edges.
– Chuck van Zyl — Star’s End
If you like Eno’s, “On Land” and “The Pearl,” you will like this one. Ambient needs to be tastefully done if it isn’t going to degenerate into trashy New Age albums sold at Target. This one is excellent. There is enough going on to explore, and it is low-key enough to nap or sleep to. I took a nap today listening to it.
This is close to being one of the most relaxing CDs I have ever heard..I have had it for about 6 months now and I come close to listening to it every night..I buy a lot of ambient and most relaxing/atmospheric music doesn’t come close to this…the only other album that is as good as this is The Pearl by Eno and Budd…smoooooth………..
Fans of Harold Budd, Brian Eno, and Roger Eno piano with treatments works will enjoy this release. This, to date, is James Johnson’s most “mainstream, new agey, relaxation piano” release. It will have a very broad appeal to those afraid of weirder-voiced ambience or highly synthesized excursions. As Michael Allison aka Darshan Ambient is one of the newer masters of melodic ambience so too I see Johnson has this ability in him to create compositionally. The dreamy and lilting pianoscapes of Johnson with Thompson’s select embellishments and treatments are in perfect balance. This is a very pleasing listening experience that will serve to establish James Johnson as one of the genre’s best. I knew this long ago on my very first listen to his Surrender releases which featured a delightful piano intermission betwixt a wall of drones.
This is a 95% total relaxation release. Only on the 5:28 “Innocence Lost” does a tension surround the listener with ominous and mournful synths. This is gradually decreased by the careful entry of Johnson’s piano and some wordless choir effects but there remains a sense of remorse and unresolved regrets throughout. Those folks who like a touch of environmental sounds courtesy of the Hand of the Creator will also enjoy nature’s watery whispers here and there on “Low & Clear”.
Overall, this is a solid winner for fans of meandering ivories that drift in the airy heights of the soul’s ascent to peace. This type of music re-affirms to my soul that Man is more than brain and brawn. He is a living soul with Mind and a spirit to hear the call of the Eternal One. And Death is but a door . . .
– All about Jazz