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Christmas Presence by Merrill Collins
- posted by Steve Sheppard on 12/31/2016
Something special
As we draw closer to Christmas day it’s a beautiful feeling to be surrounded by music of the season, even more so if the music is composed from the original and created from the energy flow of a musician who is really in touch with her own musical soul.
I give you Merrill Collins, who has at this most peaceful and loving time of the year, manifested a whole new flow to some classic musical memories of Christmas’s past.
Let’s start with the idyllic Angels We Have Heard On High. I shall forever remember this version of this loving carol, as both Chrissie and I adorned our tree with memories of love in the shape of a special heart felt decoration, this song was playing on the radio, Merrill I thank you for this moment of pure bliss and oneness.
Collins has a way of performing on piano that is so warming to be a part of and on O Holy Night we can be a part of that manifestation. Collins has created something here that is a mixture of ambience and traditional. She truly has the most amazing ability as a performer to make something new, from the pages of the past, and give them a whole new fresh and happy vibe.
As a music lover, writer, performer and listener, I feel my life has become more fulfilled thanks to the work of Merrill Collins. Her unique abilities to create something magical and spacious are sublime, as on the track The First Noel, we again have something new and fresh, but above all of that, we have a traditional song raised to a level of ambience that is so delicate and pristine.
On He Shall Feed his Flock, we have a melody that is almost childlike, and very comforting, but warming and soothing. One can see the candles dripping with wax, and the moonlit glow of a winter day, disappearing into the ever hazy ever present night time cloak, that lies on the musical borderlands of reality.
At times, i am reminded of the work of Mike Rowland, whose angelic renditions reverberated around the halls of the new age industry for eons. But Collins has that extra special tenderness that is so very special, listen to Of the Father's Love Begotten, and you will see what I mean. This has to be the most thoughtful and ambient pieces I have ever heard on a Christmas release, her tones are supreme, empowering, and are filled with a relaxing, yet inspiring motif. To be honest, this was one my favourite tracks off the release.
Want something different? Here it is, it’s the standard, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Now I heard a track some 40 plus years ago called, Lightning Ride BY Neil Sedaka, and this is as close to it as you can get to that beautiful composition as I have ever heard. The light formation of chords is sublime, the calmness of production is graphic, but the depth of performance makes this my favourite piece off the album with ease.
As we drift into the second half of the release, we come across a well-known title called, We Three Kings, there is something so very laid back here, but thoughtful about this arrangement. Collins creates a whole realm of ambience on this composition, one that you could listen to for hours uninterrupted.
Sometimes you come across a song that takes your breath way and this is that very moment. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, Is a step into the unknown for us dear reader and listener. At well over six minutes we have an opportunity to explore the majestic calmness of the artist. This composition has such an ambience about it, its undeniable and probably has to be one of my favourite’s pieces off the release.
Merrill Collins is a co-creator of pure blissful ambient music and on O Come, O Come Emanuele, we can really bear witness to the crossover of styles, her performance on this track is outstanding and one could listen to this piece time and time again. The skills given here cross from classical, to ambient, to new age and back again, we’re witnessing in this piece, a musician who is clearly, not just in the moment, but one who is willing to experiment and be a part of a whole new sound.
This must surely be the most original Christmas albums of all time. Let’s prove that point further, this is Come Thou Dear Redeemer, again that soft jazzy style New Age ethic eases us home. I for one could with blissful ease, just float on the clouds of tone, and drift forever more. Collins has that magical wand of ambient majesty, and I feel that this is one album that will be played relentlessly during my holiday season break, from it I feel peace and tranquillity and a new jeux de position of musical performance.
Silent Night has to be one of the most familiar pieces of this time of year and still to this this day, it moves me. The tempo that Collins' employs, soothes us to the point that we may well fall asleep under our Christmas tree, and forget that we should now be in bed asleep, waiting for the sunlight to break through the window of a brand new day.
The album ends with Ringtone, which is the bells and chimes from the previous track, a gentle way to leave the album.
Collins has taken an array of classic Christmas tunes and created something ultra-special, she has not conformed to the standard, but created something in between, something ambient, something new and refreshing. Christmas Presence is a release that will placate both the traditional and non-traditional listener, will bring solace to the ears of the stressed seasonal purchaser of holiday gifts, but above all Merrill Collins and Christmas Presence, is one of the most pleasing, blissful, and ambient slices of Christmas based music collections, I have heard for simply ages.
Rating: Excellent
Second Youth by Lena Natalia
- posted by Steve Sheppard on 12/31/2016
An exceptional offering
Lena Natalia has had an amazing year with her previous releases and she is back once more, with some very emotive performances, on this her latest offering called, Second Youth (Modern Classical Piano).
When I first looked at the album cover it reminded me of the summer playing fields I use to roam in England, the short form composition called Spinning Tops became a musical back ground to my mental perambulations into the past, and I found that both combined, delivered a thoughtful and emotive arrangement right into my musical heart.
The lightness of performance and spirit on this album is simply blissful and on the track Moving On that deft of hand, partnered with a totally classy performance, continued to create imagery in my mind’s eye. The repetitive nature and wonderful narration on this piece by the artist, really gives us a sense of perpetual onward movement, but one that is being done with a freshness of heart.
This is one of those albums that you cannot help listening to over and over just in case you missed something; it also has a real sense of vibrancy about it. Prayer for Wisdom is a piece of cultured magic on the keys by Natalia, she caresses them with such meaning and skill that one can literally feel that you’re right there with her.
I have longed for a piano based album to come my way that is memorably emotional and allows me a listener to create my own mental movies whilst listening and I think this release is that album, listen to Rainstorm and more of Natalia’s creative genius comes to the fore. We have the lower notes mixed with the rain fall up-tempo energy of her performance; this composition is breath taking, and rather timely as it looks like another storm is heading my way outside my studio, so it seems like I have found the perfect soundtrack for that forth coming moment.
If you were to be given another chance at life, would you make the same mistakes? Perhaps Second Youth means that you can make that change now, and live the next phase as you wish. Lena Natalia’s work on Second Youth makes me think that this is so. This is a really passionate performance and the energy alone from this arrangement is empowering and inspiring. This is a track played with a masterful degree of fluency.
I must say that this journey with Lena is wonderful, she has truthfully created something that is sun kissed and beautiful here, and if you listen to the following track you will see a fine example of that. Just Around the Bend has a lush and colourful tone about its construction, the bend could be the path way through your life’s walk, whatever, you now have one stunningly empowering melody to listen to, while you take that next bend.
Cafe Con Leche is a timeless piece, we have many coffee shops here in Cyprus and Chrissie and I often just sit there with our drinks and people watch, nothing like being in the moment. This is such a shining example of constant movement and melody and one very pretty song to listen to whilst sipping a latte in the afternoon sun.
The most interesting title on the album is up now and called The Diary of a Railroad Conductor. Natalia’s clever hand and mind have constructed a piece here that once more has a steady onward movement, but a slight pause and pace change as well, much like you would expect to experience whilst on a train journey. One can almost see the conductor making notes throughout this journey in his diary, and as the train sleeps in the siding, he sips another cup of Coffee.
We now move into the latter half of the release and while doing so dear reader, we come across a smooth, but slightly mournful piece called Waiting at the Gate. This is another deeply moving piece by the artist, and through the emotive tones, we can perhaps see a lonely child waiting forlornly at the gate for her friend to arrive, a friend who will never arrive, a beautiful and emotionally charged piece indeed.
I would love to see Lena Natalia perform the next track called The Arrival, I can imagine it would be fascinating to watch and also pick up on the empowered nature of its construction. The performance here is sublime, the power and intensity manifests something special and you even have a sweet melody to revel in as well.
Our penultimate composition is a real classic, it is called Late Apologies. Natalia is gifting us a special slice of ambience here; this is a song that has everything, a soft gentle refrain, a calmness of touch and a skilled presence on the piano that makes her in my opinion one of the finest in her style around today.
Our last piece is called Transitions, listen to the smoothness of performance here, this is one of those tracks that you could leave on repeat for hours and never get bored, the methodology and performance is simply timeless, what a wonderfully confident way to leave the album.
I have been an admirer of the work of Lena Natalia ever since she introduced me to Paris in music with her last two albums, however in my opinion this is her finest work so far. Second Youth has intent, it is abundant in the imagery that the music creates, her performance is perfection and this for me is one of the most artistic and colourful releases I think she has manifested thus so far.
If you’re a fan of the solo piano genre you going to simply adore this one, if you’re a lover of really good music played well, then I really suggest you make Second Youth part of you musical library as quick as you can, as this is really an exceptional offering.
Rating: Excellent
The Rhythm of Life by Matt Venuti
- posted by Gena on 12/26/2016
Matt Venuti Composes Life-Affirming Music

THE RHYTHM OF LIFE by singer-songwriter Matt Venuti is a fascinating and heart-felt new album with lyrics outlining universal tenets. He's one of the best-known players of the Hang and Gubal (the modern, metallic, melodic-and-rhythmic instruments that look like mini flying saucers). His vocal style is velvety-rich over ambient grooves with deep-drawn lyrics. There's also a spoken-word-with-music track (“Desert Dreams”) and a cover tune (Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me”) that's a fresh, gorgeous take on a classic song. Venuti is backed by stellar musician/bandmates including Robert Powell on pedal steel guitar, Daniel Berkman on Kora (African harp), John Steiner on piano and organ, and Celso Alberti on a chorus of beautiful female harmony vocals throughout the album. On select tracks Matt also plays the Electronic Valve Instrument, another musical "voice" that he is well known for.

Matt's band The Venusians have been a staple in San Francisco and became favorites of the so-called “digerati” of Silicon Valley, the Burning Man community, and the club and festival scene. More recently Matt has played at TED and TEDx conferences and now spends most of his time on the road as a solo performer and occasionally with a small ensemble, playing concerts throughout the US and occasionally abroad.

Check out this warm, life-affirming music from Matt Venuti.
Rating: Excellent
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