I absolutely love it when bands recommend this site to one another. I recently received a message from Philipp Nespital for his solo project Smalltape. Amazing band Osta Love had recommended that he submit his music to me, and I was happy to oblige. What I love even more, though, is when that submission ends up being something very special, and the new album from Smalltape, called “The Ocean”, is definitely that and more.
Like I said, Smalltape is a solo project from sound designer Philipp Nespital of Germany. He plays almost all the instruments here, and it blows me away that he can be so proficient on some many instruments. Philipp plays most of the keys, guitar, bass, and drums on this album. He also has some guest musicians that offer help here and there, with special mention to Otis Sandsjö on his numerous saxophone offerings. Additionally, Philipp provides the vocals and composes the orchestra pieces, too. His sound design experience is obviously in play, too, as the album comes across as an immense spectacle, potent to the core.
Smalltape is hard to describe in general terms. The music is a little bit of everything. The style is obviously influenced classically in the violins and piano lines, but the rock parts strike me as prog rock with indie and pop touches, and still more there is a clear jazz focus on some tracks through saxophone and muted keys. And when I say “jazz”, it is not just a matter of the inclusion of certain instruments, but also the style and structure influenced by that genre, just like his classical and rock segments. So, like the actual ocean, “The Ocean” is an album that is always fomenting and changing from one thing to another, and that change comes in waves that pour over you with force and incredible clarity.
“The Ocean” is a huge, complex album. It builds and explodes in fascinating, spectacular fashion; and its sense of class and song structure is intelligent and beautiful. The instruments here are characters in a grand story, which I honestly don’t quite understand yet. The songs each tell their part of this riveting tale, whether it be through actual vocals or completely in instrumental fashion. For example, the first two tracks on this album are “When the Waves Divide” and “The Ocean, Part 1”, and both are entirely instrumental. The former is a hovering violin intro that sets the tone, and the latter is something so truly explosive that I have to move my discussion of it to the next paragraph.
“The Ocean, Part 1” is an instrumental track with a scale that I haven’t heard in some time. It transitions from mega violins into a rock segment with bassy punch, but it then again transitions into piano quandaries and haunting vocals inflections. It’s more like a production than just strictly a song. And that is how the whole album feels in some fashion: This album feels like a grand production made for the big time. “The Ocean, Part 1”, then, is this theatrical and balanced display of genre fusion and a true understanding of musical structure.
This sense of mastery continues throughout the album. The keys are absolutely stunning. From the muted key tones to the gorgeous frothing piano sequences to the sweet synth, the keys on this album are some of the best this year, if not the best overall. Incredibly bright orchestral sounds abound on almost every track, and the jazz and bluesy keys and sax are a soothing and personal triumph. Possibly the unsung hero of this album, the acoustic guitar weaves its way gently from song to song. It is played with gusto, but also with fragility, too. It lays the foundation for so many moments of pure punch and beauty. Lastly, the drums here are mixed so well, and they provide some of the most awesome signature change moments on the album because of the rather complex nature of the beats.
Do you know that feeling where you hear an album that makes so much sense and the musical styles mesh so perfectly that you feel like you need to run out and tell everyone that will listen? “The Ocean” is one of those albums. It has songs like ““The Shore”, a track that transitions between all three basic genres of this musical project, and it is sublime beyond what I can describe. This is the track where we first hear Philipp’s sincere and gentle vocal style. The album has songs like “The Mirror”, a track that features an enchanting piano rhythm and beautiful vocals, but then we all of a sudden get this sweet synth solo that seems to come out of nowhere, and the song builds to this foamy jam that absolutely floors me.
Other standouts are “Kaventsmann”, an instrumental track (probably the jazziest of them all) that is over 15 minutes long, and takes us through every shade and tone on the album; “The Diver”, which is a genuine acoustic ballad; and “Concrete Silence”, a song that starts out as this bluesy, gentle track and then emerges into this immense rhythm near the end. Maybe my favorite on the album, “Picture of a Dawn” starts out with a heavy pop influence, but transitions into a huge wall of violins. It is a truly stunning finish to an album that is nothing short of amazing.
When you finish “The Ocean”, you really feel this sort of accomplishment. It’s not just because the album is about 1 hour and 12 minutes in length: It’s also because the way the album is structured takes you on a voyage of grand proportions, and it brings you to the vivid dawn in a colorful and nostalgic way. Smalltape is a musical project that I am so happy to have found. There isn’t quite another album out there that has all these trappings and gusto in one package, and it’s truly an honor to hear something so well composed and well designed. In my book, this is one of the best albums of 2017 thus far.