Richard Poulin 24-March-2008 Eleven Nails in the Coffin (2006)

Nigel R. Hills is the British artist known as N.R. Hills, which is also a place in Texas. N.R. Hills' music, however, has not much to do with Texas. When you listen to his hybrid ambient music, you could well be daydreaming in Texas or at the outskirts of the Milky Way. It's fairly easy to downplay the efforts of N.R. Hills of taking you in a state of quiet meditative mood with references to Vangelis or Tangerine Dream, and to call it yet another new-ageish pseudo-Oriental muzak album, as one can easily find out searching for reviews of his music on the web. I listened to this album without a single clue about who this artist is or what style he is practicing. And I must say I was rather favorably impressed, although not thrilled to the bones.

N.R. Hills is yet another multi-instrumentalist who self-produces his material on his own label (Celeno). “Eleven Nails in the Coffin” are 11 tracks excerpted from his first 3 albums (“Romeo and the Beast”, “Nails” and “The Triumph of Death”) that date back to the turn of the “80s-early “90s, but that have been in the own artist's words, “revised” for this album. So it is not technically a compilation , but a sort of re-processing of some of his early material that has been apparently overlooked. Actual references to his music are hard to find but have been compiled on the musician's website: The Music of N.R. Hills. Yes, this belongs to the ambient electronic genre, with mostly analogic synthesizers, a little guitar, and a little percussion here and there that adds interesting colors and depth to the sound. I would tentatively compare N.R. Hills' e-music to a crossover between Steve Roach/Vidna Obmana's “Well of Souls” and Tangerine Dream's “Zeit” (a pretty favorable place on my scale), but in a somewhat less transcendental vein. Unlike these last two masterpieces, where the listener is taken to totally abstract places and completely immersed in an alien, unlimited universe where no references to known objects or sounds are left, “Eleven Nails...” is much more organic. There are for example several tracks that are decidedly Oriental-ized (e.g. “Don't Go Into The Apple Tree), and there are even spoken parts (e.g. “They Call Me Shock-Headed”) with esoteric Indian (or Indian-like) poetry read with an Eastern accent that really gives an “authentic” feeling to it, and they are certainly pleasant and soothing in a way. But I have somehow the same feeling as when I listen to Graeme Edge's poetry on the early “70s Moody Blues material: deliberate profoundness instead of true depth. So here is the main problem with that music: it has very nice melodic ideas and themes, but somehow they never seem to take off completely. That hard-to-define spark that brings the listener out of this world seems to be lacking... Or perhaps this is not what that music is trying to achieve? In that case, the final result is a little too dry and many electronic effects become noise instead of music. The tadpole does not quite metamorphose into the incredibly iridescent and rare tree frog from unchartered territories of long forgotten forests in your mind that the REALLY great ambient music manages to become when the electronic tricks and gimmicks are seamlessly integrated. Perhaps a comparison with some of Heldon's material such as “6-Interface” would be appropriate. Heldon too often sounds technical or one-dimensional and does not manage to fly, which does not mean that it is uninteresting nor unpleasant. Simply less, let's say .... spiritual, which “Eleven Nails....” obviously wants to be but only half-succeed.

“Eleven Nails in the Coffin” is nevertheless full of nice moments, and if the listener does not pay too much attention and ignores the New-Ageish tendencies, it even becomes coherent and sounds like one concept album. Perhaps a nice suggestion as an introduction to spiritually oriented ambient progressive music for people not yet acquainted with the abyssal pleasures of Steve Roach's or Robert Rich's timeless explorations....

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