Features·Point of View

The Juno Awards' instrumental album category is a hodgepodge of musical styles — and that's OK

‘Techno, world music, jazz, folk, funk, ambient, house, electro,’ [deep breath] ‘classical, experimental and turntablism fit within this category,’ explain the criteria.

Which of this year's 5 disparate nominees should win? Let's take a closer look

Flore Laurentienne is the project of composer Mathieu David Gagnon. (Maude Limoges)

Each year, when the Juno Award nominations are announced, I immediately jump to see who's up for instrumental album of the year.

There are more prominent Juno Award categories — album, single, breakthrough artist and group of the year all get a lot of hype — but the instrumental album category draws me in because it's a fascinating catch-all, bringing together diverse artists and first-rate projects that have often slipped past my radar.

The nominated albums in this category are united more by what they aren't than by what they are.

It's not a jazz category, although jazz musicians regularly show up among the nominees for instrumental album of the year. Nor is it a folk, classical or electronic category, but those genres are also frequently represented.

In fact, as the Juno Awards' criteria explain, "musical genres and respective subgenres such as (but not limited to) techno, world music, jazz, folk, funk, ambient, house, electro, classical, experimental and turntablism fit within this category." What other category can make such an extravagant claim?

But wait, there's more: sometimes albums nominated in the instrumental album category have singers on their roster. That was the case last year, when the album Symphronica Upfront from Ron Davis's Symphronica was nominated for instrumental album of the year, even though it featured a vocalist on one song. Again, the category's criteria explain why that is:

"For the purpose of this category, 'instrumental' means using instruments and voice, where voice is used almost exclusively in the vocalization of notes or tones, as opposed to voice used in the rendition of lyrics. Eligible product must be at least 75 per cent instrumental (playing time) and be the driving force to the overall popularity of the album."

Apples and oranges

Comparing the nominated albums is an adventure, and the apples and oranges in the running this year are a case in point.

There's avant-garde acoustic guitar (Gordon Grdina's Prior Street), fantasy film-inspired electronica (Blitz//Berlin's Movements III), ambient piano pop (David Foster's Eleven Words), folk music (Bruce Cockburn's Crowing Ignites) and post-minimalist orchestral synth (Flore Laurentienne's Volume 1).

To pick a winner among such musically disparate albums requires an open mind: not everyone who's a folk music enthusiast will know much about computer-generated electronic soundscapes, for instance. Similarly, if you're impressed by mastery of a musical instrument, you may find sample-based production lacking. Ultimately, this is a category in which each album needs to be judged on its own terms.

That's a long preamble to get to my point, which is to take a close look at each of this year's nominees for instrumental album of the year. Scroll down for my predictions on which album should win and which album will win the Juno Award this year.


Movements III, Blitz//Berlin

Blitz//Berlin is the group of film composers Martin Macphail, Tristan Tarr and Dean Rode who've made a name for themselves creating music for the trailers for Birdbox, Fifty Shades of Grey and The Girl on the Train, among other films, and you can hear strains of those thrillers and psychological dramas on Movements III. "We always tend to write with a visual story in mind," explains Macphail, who says Movements III takes the listener "through stormy jungles, black sand beaches and burning shipyards." The album contains 12 short tracks that display how deftly Blitz//Berlin can establish a mood. On "Arctic Sea," one detects massive blocks of shifting sea ice groaning in the depths; "Ink" fills you with a sense that time is running out before something dire will happen; "All the Floors are Darkness" transforms a sample of Leonard Cohen's voice into a neo-medieval battle song, and "Genoa" takes you into a hazy meadow at dusk where pointillistic sounds dazzle you like fireflies. The whole album would make an impressive demo to provide to film and TV production companies, which was maybe its purpose?

Crowing Ignites, Bruce Cockburn

Crowing Ignites is Bruce Cockburn's 34th album — let that sink in for a moment — and his first instrumental album since 2005's Speechless. What strikes you off the top of Crowing Ignites is how unhurried he is. When you no longer need to prove yourself, you give the music the time it needs.

To call this a folk music album is to undersell its array of styles — although the cheerful "Sweetness and Light" does belong in that lane. "April in Memphis" is essentially a baroque chaconne built on a repeating descending scale, allowing for some deft finger work. Cockburn's love of blues shines through in "Blind Willie," a guitar and dobro duel with Colin Linden, who produced the album. On "Pibroch: the Wind in the Valley," Cockburn pays tribute to his Gaelic heritage. ("Makes me want to sip whisky out of a sea shell on some rocky headland," he says in the notes.) There's a distinct Balinese influence on "Seven Daggers," which introduces gorgeous percussion to the mix. Most impressive of all is "The Mt. Lefroy Waltz," a composition for jazz quartet with nice muted trumpet from Ron Miles. Album opener "Bardo Rush" throws you into the deep end of Cockburn's guitar ability, preparing you for the adventure that follows.

Eleven Words, David Foster

"What I truly wanted to do with this album is strip away the lyrics and all the production that I'm known for, leaving just the melodies." That's how 16-time Grammy Award-winning producer and composer David Foster described this 11-track collection of wistful piano songs, each one named with a word that holds special meaning for him. Foster's facility and eloquence at the keyboard are enhanced here and there with subtle touches of strings to goose one's emotions, a specialty he has perfected in the countless songs he has produced for Céline Dion, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé and other singing stars. The songs belie the influence of great melodists and songwriting masters: Michel  Legrand ("Orbiting"), Harold Arlen ("Dreams"), even Sergei Rachmaninoff and Johannes Brahms ("Love") — all assimilated by Foster's unerring pop instincts. Don't make the mistake of dismissing this pretty, calming music as  wallpaper. There's wisdom and rigorous craft behind it.

Volume 1, Flore Laurentienne

Flore Laurentienne (which translates as Laurentian flora) is the project of Mathieu David Gagnon, a composer from La Pocatière, Que., who assembled 16 musicians to play the eight pieces collected on Volume 1, which he enhances and transforms with ingenious touches of electronics. He describes his music as "an awakening of true beauty all around us," and it certainly brims with vitality. Bookending the album are Fleuve No. 1 and Fleuve No. 2, the former sounding like an arresting synthesis of Edward Elgar and Aphex Twin, the latter a haunting, futuristic deconstruction of the same material. In between, he presents a wide range: "1991" begins like an organ solo by Messiaen that's gradually subsumed by the Shepard tone; "Fugue" sounds like baroque music but played by a chamber orchestra from the 1950s; "Route" is a breathtaking, prog-rock-leaning perpetual motion; "Petit piano," with its repeating pizzicato accompaniment, is the closest we get to minimalism. The cumulative effect is that of an enticing peek inside a fertile, even restless mind, which makes me impatient for Volume 2.

Prior Street, Gordon Grdina

Gordon Grdina, whose China Cloud won the Juno Award for instrumental album of the year in 2019, is back with Prior Street, 41 minutes of spellbinding solo guitar and oud that will reward you for the time you spend with it. Grdina's free-form, improvisatory and often atonal music can seem impenetrable at first, not offering up any immediately obvious entry points. But once you just give in to the beautiful tone of his instruments and his fluency on them, the motifs and musical ideas emerge in profusion. The album's opener, "Seeds 11," is a sprawling 11-minute atonal piece that never exceeds a mezzo piano dynamic and yet affects you quite powerfully when its twisting melodic figures finally float away. "Discordant Lullaby" and "Sama'i Faraphaza" are monophonic expositions for oud, exploring every chromatic corner of their Persian scales. "Overtime" is a brief but beautiful minimalist interlude, while the album concludes with a tender folk-leaning tune called "Always Been the Song" that's anchored in G major and transports you to a porch on a hot summer night.

Predictions

Of the five nominated albums, Foster's Eleven Words has had the most popular success, but last year's winner in this category, Alexandra Stréliski's Inscape, was also a piano pop album, and I think the jury will go for something different this time. For similar reasons, they likely won't bestow a repeat on 2019 winner Grdina, even though his album has an appealing complexity. At 33 minutes, Blitz//Berlin's Movements III is the shortest of the five nominated albums, and, while impressive, seems less substantial than the other projects. That leaves Juno newcomer Flore Laurentienne's bold Volume 1 versus veteran Cockburn's expansive Crowing Ignites.

Should win: For its forward-looking fusion of styles, Volume 1 by Flore Laurentienne should win the Juno Award.

Will win: The jury will honour Cockburn's astonishing musicianship and give the award to Crowing Ignites.

Wherever you are in the world, you can watch the 2021 Juno Awards on Sunday, June 6. You can watch live on CBC TV and CBC Gem, listen on CBC Radio One and CBC Music and stream globally at CBCMusic.ca/junos.

(CBC Music)

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