If there is anything I have learned from listening to ambient new age composer, performer and improvisational master Scott Lawlor’s musically expansive and consciousness expanding works, it’s that grief and its many stages of acceptance and transcendence take time. In May 2018, I was privileged to experience and absorb (for a listener doesn’t merely “hear” his soul-transporting music) his extraordinary recordings Transition and In a Dark Room.
These were emotional, deeply hypnotic and cathartic collections created organically in tribute to his beloved brother Joe, his struggle with stage 4 cancer, his passing/transition and Lawlor’s’ intense struggle to find light, new life and perhaps universal meaning in the wake of losing a beloved soul far too soon. Musically, he began the cycle with the introductory experience of Look Unto the Heavens, a powerful opening attempt to seek such meaning amidst the pain and suffering.
As engaging as the previous trilogy but perhaps the most engaging and sonically palatable for the casual fan of new age/ambient music, his most recent release The Color of Extraordinary is a magnificent continuation of Lawlor’s multi-faceted emotional journey. The other recordings featured some piano elements, but this is a full-fledged epic piano collection, infused with pure, raw yet beautiful and lushly flowing pieces – composed in January and February 2018 – exploring, in his words “some of the ever present emotions as a result of grief and loss.”
Lawlor is an excellent essayist who often quite eloquently expounds in words what he is trying to convey – and his sometimes lengthy track titles are deeply poetic. Yet his sparsely arranged music is so honest and intimate that our open hearts would probably be able to feel what is happening inside his heart, mind and soul even without his explanatory essay. He tells us that he’s making a transition here from the emotional perspective of “In a Dark Room” to one that is more philosophical and reflective. It’s lovely, of course, to have that laid out, but those with finely tuned spiritual antennas could intuit this just from the titles and the flow of the music. The album title alone informs us of the solid breakthroughs taking place and the generally serene feeling of love in the light of a slightly deeper sense of acceptance of life’s most perplexing mysteries.
One of the most notable shifts from Lawlor’s previous works dedicated to his brother is the fact that eight of the ten pieces are briefer, more easily consumed and connected with than the lengthy, ultra-meditative pieces that previously dominated. His elegiac approach to the piano is immediately soul-satisfying, drawing us in emotionally from the get go – a very different mode of expression from the earlier slow building soundscapes of atmospheric seduction. That said, the emotional core of The Color of Extraordinary are the two longest pieces, the dark, haunting, endlessly questioning “what if music is what escapes when the heart breaks” (reminding us that his gift of cathartic expression through rhythm, melody and improvisation is perhaps Lawlor’s true salvation) and the stark, spacious, atmospheric and deeply exploratory 18 ½ minute meditative masterpiece “She peered over the ledge of heaven.”
Despite their overall sense of darkness, contemplation and working through the pain to find connective light somewhere within the tunnel, many of the shorter expressions on the album ease across our consciousness like more commercial, traditional sounding new age solo piano recordings. Whether by design or simply the way his divinely inspired fingers found new life, pieces like the eloquent, moody “The darker the night, the brighter the stars,” the gently meditational title track (where gloom is shattered at certain moments by brief sparks of light) and the bleak, brooding and deeply philosophical “The deeper the grief, the closer is God” are a bit easier to grasp emotionally.
Lawlor uses the titles of these shorter improvisations to help guide us through the powerful soul-work he’s been doing. “our souls contained more scar tissue than life” is slow and soulful, but has some of the collection’s most dynamic melodic movement – i.e. a ray of hope. Where the equally melodic, graceful but daringly optimistic “grief and love are conjoined,” the soft spoken sense of eternal life is more deeply felt on this side of the veil. Lawlor continues that theme on the last two tracks – “There is no grief like the grief tht does not speak” and “But my grief will never go” – to let us know that even if shards of light envelop him so that he knows his beloved Joe is alive and thriving in another dimension and feels his love, his pain will not subside until the two are reunited in the eternal realm. That’s when he’ll know the true Color of Extraordinary, and where the sorrowful music will give way to pure soul-cleansed joy.
If you visit Lawlor’s bandcamp page (https://scottlawlor.bandcamp.com/music) after listening to The Color of Extraordinary (or the other works dedicated to his brother), you might find yourself a bit intimidated by the sheer output of well over 200 ambient releases. Yes, it’s a lot and it may take you a little exploratory time to find another entry point. But once you start immersing, and begin healing in ways you could have never previously imagined, you’ll know why I wrote in my review of Transition: “If you are into soulful, thought provoking and consciousness expanding ambient music, Scott Lawlor is a composer and artist who needs to be on your musical radar. His vast body of work will keep your ears attuned for a long time to both your inner spirit and that indefinable ‘other’ in the Universe.” You might just color the experience “extraordinary.