The term ‘orchestral drum & bass’ might not roll off the tongue in most conversations, but anyone who’s used the term is likely familiar with Keeno, a classically trained pianist who picked up the sound of drum & bass as a teenager and fused it with orchestral composition to create tracks filled with rich harmonies and soaring melodies underpinned by breaks and bass. After three albums on Med School, Keeno signed to sister label Hospital Records, which tends to stick more to the tried and tested than the novel and daring. So what’s his latest release saying?
There are a few developments, but not much on the surface has changed. The usual palette of orchestra, drums and bass still present along with a complement of singers. Perhaps the most exciting development from the track list alone is a collaboration with Etherwood, a singer and producer who’s ethereal atmospheres touch a similar vein to Keeno’s sense of harmony in the eyes of many.
The track they made together is pretty much what you’d expect: sublime echoing ambience, vague but uplifting lyrics that mean everything or nothing depending on your state of mind and the standard background of bass and rapid beat. The chords in particular caught my ear, adding a touch more tension than I expected in a way that makes the track more engaging than many others of its kind.
While Etherwood is a collaborator that many have likely been waiting for, there’s another at the album’s start that comes completely out of the blue: Fae Vie. While the other vocal tracks on the album see established regulars such as Kate Wild and Thomas Oliver (who’s vocal on the jaunty Sunflowers is well worth a listen) Fae is slightly different: unsigned, unknown, and on the album almost wholly by chance, Fae and her partner were Keeno’s downstairs neighbours after he moved into a new flat. On knocking on their door to explain that he’d be making noise, Keeno discovered that Fae was not only a drum & bass fan, but an unsigned singer. Their collaborative effort is beautiful, earning its place as title track with cinematic harmonies complementing a real vocal talent with a gorgeous tone. To me, the discovery of Fae is a really exciting step for this album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from the pair in the future.
I live, I Learn shows Keeno’s classical knowledge perhaps more than any previous album. When I Heard You features expressive piano, that I can only assume is played live, with a dynamic breadth of volume and tempo that’s not often found in club music. Antiphony follows this vein further, getting its name from the interplay between choirs that sing throughout. The track has a rare but beautiful combination of sound that shifts and blurs itself over the course of four minutes. Apparently it’s a fan favourite, and it’s not hard to see why.
There’s a definite structure to I Live, I Learn. The first eight tracks are a mix of jazzy bops and evocative movers, but this gives way to something darker and harder with, as seems to be standard for Keeno albums, a drumless tune in the middle, before a triumphant finish. The first half has many tracks worth checking out, with Severn Summers and Sunflowers providing a breezy contrast to the emotional wait of I Live, I Learn and Antiphony. Despite this, I was glad to hear a change in tone and a bit of balance to the album. Fear, Keeno’s collaborative effort with Obsel is perhaps the only track on the album that doesn’t rely on chords to keep things moving, opting instead for a suitably menacing spoken word sample, a cornucopia of processed break rhythms, chromatic sound effects and (it is still Keeno after all) dissonant orchestral harmonies that sit in the background. It’s not the sort of thing I usually listen to Keeno to hear, but works really well in the album and is a solid tune outside it. It’s 2020 so I barely remember what nightclubs are like, but this feels like a tune I’d want to hear while out.
The tune preceding this does something for which I love Keeno: combining the bass-led and the harmonic into something dark and eminently musical. Listen Close, Keeno’s collaboration with Telomic, could undoubtably stand with just the the barebones drum & bass palette, with twisty bass lines dancing around fills and a driven beat, but the addition of tense piano harmonies, strings and harmonic ambience push it into being one of my favourite tracks on the album.
My favourite track on the album might have to be Oracle, however. Splicing the dark feel of the previous two tracks with an emphasis on harmony, it carries the kind of wistful emotion that got me into this style of drum & bass in the first place: pensive piano lines weave through a mournful synth lead and vocal with – as ever – a driving beat, and a bassline that can only be described as supportive. For me at least, this is Keeno at his finest: thoughtful, dynamic and uplifting.
Keeno has a habit of finishing his albums on a cinematic high, and this one’s no exception. The So-Called Impossible wraps up I Live, I Learn in exactly the way I’d expect. There’s a feeling of coming home as Keeno flexes his compositional muscles in a euphoric build and progression throughout the tune, with a simple beat backing what feels like a composers track. Out of a medley of chord progressions that pop up in drum & bass, the one carried by the strings here somehow stands out as one of the most distinctive and enjoyable. To my nostalgic delight, some of the most recognisable sounds from Futurism make an appearance. Maybe I’m biased by fuzzy recollections of being seventeen when Futurism came out, but with the scope of I Live, I Learn preceding it, this track feels like the perfect landing.
In short, Keeno’s still on his own brand of lush harmony, soaring melodies and orchestras melded with the bones of drum & Bass. Not much has changed here but personally, I’m ok with that.
Illustrated by Hollie Joiner