Jonathan Geer is a composer/arranger; a "film score" musician. Essex is Geer's debut album of scores, and is not written for any motion picture. But listening to the record, it does sound like music for a film, or at least a story -- and it is, for an old story of a whaling ship named the Essex.
Before proceeding further with the review, it is imperative to give a brief description of the story of the Essex, without which the review and the album itself would sound as meaningless as watching a Jennifer Lopez video without Lopez herself being in it.
Essex was a whaling ship that left the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1819 on a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the South Pacific to hunt Sperm Whales. The ship, however, met a tragic end when it capsized after being attacked and hit by a Sperm Whale. Though the crew members survived the attack, they fell prey to dehydration, starvation and strife, and most of them died, with just eight of the twenty-one men aboard surviving to tell the story of the cataclysm in all its gory entirety. The story is long and can be accessed on a number of sites that show up upon "Googling" the word "Essex."
Moving on to the present discussion, Essex musically tells the story of the ship from the first song -- "Nantucket" -- to the last -- "Captain Pollard" (the captain of Essex) -- and is hence best enjoyed if the story is known.
Essex, like film scores in general, is full of lush orchestral arrangements. But all the music is performed by Geer alone. Hence, electronics are heavily involved, compensating for the standard real-life ensemble of 100 musicians playing together. Geer however is smart, and does not try to create a whole army of philharmonic players on his lone laptop. Instead, he has taken a different approach to composing, much like the minimalist-composers did back in the late-sixties/early-seventies; his compositions incorporate unusual sound effects, rather than electronically generated full-blown string-and-brass arrangements.
As a result of Geer's extensive use of sound effects to portray the different -- mostly cataclysmic -- events in the journey of the Essex, most of the numbers on the record could very well be mistaken for sound snippets from a Nine Inch Nails, (post-Kid A) Radiohead, or Bjork LP. This makes the music not only interesting, but also all the more palatable to folks who find film scores boring.
Cuts like "Dehydration" (depicting the slow death of the crew due to lack of drinkable water), which has whale noises and sounds of shoveling sand, and "Casting Lots" (a song for the survivors, who, in their desperation resorted to cannibalism by drawing lots to see who should next be eaten, with the unlucky candidate to be shot by one of his companions), which has effects resembling sounds of grunting and gorging men, reminds of the avant-garde composers of the nascent electronic age who resorted to using sounds rather than music for their compositions.
There are tracks, like "Departure," "The Attack," "The Island" and "Homecoming" that have "trip-hoppy" beats, like that of a creepy Massive Attack or a Sneaker Pimps song, and others like "Nantucket," "Essex Theme" and "Captain Pollard" that are classic film-scores, complete with emotionally drenched strings, flutes, percussions, and recurring themes.
Essex is not a usual "film score" record; nor is it a "pop" album. It has the body of the former and the soul of the later. It is a mix-tape of fine compositions, uncanny electronics, and unearthly sound-effects. Essex makes for an interesting listen, and would enhance the visual impact to the story of the Essex, if ever it is made into a movie.
[For more information, visit www.jonathangeer.com]