Reflecting on the essence of our deepest fears and strongest hopes is not something most people want to do. However, this is what James Myhill has done with his new instrumental album Year of the Rats. Each single looks at what lies beneath the surface of our strongest emotions. Through metaphors linking rats to disease and emotions, he considers political unrest, environmental turmoil and the current pandemic.
To tackle these topics, he fuses contemporary forms of music with classical composition and instrumentation. A multi-instrumentalist, he has gained experiences over the years playing with a range of groups and bands. This has resulted in a unique soundscape full of electronic undercurrents and eclectic melodies.
The album opens with the soft and intense build-up of ‘When We Meet Again’. The use of orchestral tones for the opening creates this epic and expansive soundscape that could take you anywhere. The electronic tones are an interesting addition which melds perfectly with the classical elements. The track opens your imagination to what is happening. Through the music, you can imagine a meeting of people who are torn apart for some reason and are now meeting again. The vocal sample adds something extra to the track.
‘The Crooked House on the Hill’ starts with these twinkling notes that create a somewhat eerie vibe. There is something sinister lurking in this track. The harsh piano chords make you think about old murder movies where someone is hiding around the corner. The swing to darker electronic notes builds the tension in the track that is never released instead softly leaves you looking over your shoulder.
The undulating tones of ‘Demons of 16’ grabs your attention before the darker and lurking electronic notes hit you. They slowly make their way into your subconscious as the higher layers of the melody hold your focus. There is a driving pace to this song that seems to be drawing you in a single direction. As this happens, there is a change in the sound that makes you want to run.
‘The Edge of Chill’ has a more laid-back approach to the opening before you are hit with some awesome guitar lines. There is an easiness to this track that is missing in the ones before it. While the song carries a level of chill, there is something dramatic about it. The cinematic sounds are all-encompassing and you are drowned in the melodies.
There is something calming about the opening of ‘The Island’ that makes you feel like you are being lured into a false sense of security. The different guitar lines relax you as you think about lying on a beach by a calm ocean. Unlike many of the other tracks on the album, there is nothing overly sinister about this song. The arching string tones set you at ease while the guitar lines gently rock you.
‘Memories May Stain’ opens with a piano line that draws you into the song. The gentle piano does make you think of times long gone. This reflectiveness is enhanced by the orchestration of other instruments. However, the floating memories are marred by the dark tones which stain the gentle reflection. It is a very atmospheric song that you can easily close your eyes and listen to at any time.
The next track is ‘Shadows in the Dark’ which returns to the dark and sinister tones of earlier. Using deeper piano lines and yawning synths it sets an eerie tone. The synths add to the tension of the track with these notes that get your heart racing. They combine with the tapping cymbals to tighten your muscles in anticipation of what is coming. Through the melody, you can imagine shadows moving in the corner of your eye.
‘Ghost Dance’ has this faster pace to the opening that makes you think of someone running. While the song is not technically fast, there is a tempo to it that gets your heart pumping. There is a lot going on in this track with different melodic elements all doing their own thing. While this could cause a cacophony of sound, each line weaves around the others to form this amazing whole of expectation.
A lighter opening is used to get your attention on ‘Ghosts of Rock ‘N’ Roll’. This leads you to an equally light electric guitar line that sounds like it is in another room. The soft vibe of the opening remains and leads you through the rest of the song. One of the more laid-back tracks of the album, there is something beautiful about it that makes it hard to stop listening to it.
‘Dark Abbey’ is a track packed full of ominous tones and dark intensity. This starts from the first soft notes and continues through the baleful synths. The high tinkering notes build more tension than the darker and deeper elements as you sit in anticipation of what is coming. The use of choral samples makes the tension even worse because it reminds you of horror movies where similar samples generally result in murder.
‘The Mental Asylum’ has a more electronic tone from the very beginning. There is also something lurking below the surface with this song, but not in the same way as ‘Dark Abbey’. This is more sinister and insidious like it is resting in the instruments or asylum itself. The changes in the melody echo the creepy vibes of these institutions in this amazingly artful manner. There is a howling emptiness to certain melodic elements before crashing fear and despair.
The title track ‘Year of the Rats’ has a very light progressive opening. You can almost imagine a tentative creature checking that the coast is clear. This explorative melody gives way to electronic guitars that mimic movement sending the creature back to safety. There is a great interplay in this song from the rich and slow orchestral instruments and the heavier modern tones.
The last track is ‘Omega Sun’ which takes you back to some of the darkness of the early tracks. There is an undulation to the base of this melody overlaid with crashing movements. It is almost like an introduction to the rest of the track which is full of these synth lines and grandeur. It is an interesting way to close the album but does combine everything that you love from the previous tracks.
Through the instrumental tracks on Year of the Rats, James Myhill takes you through anticipation, darkness, relaxation and tension. While all instrumental, each song is unique and brings a well of emotions both dark and light. Some will leave you furtively looking at shadows while others are a great sigh of relief.