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  • Jonathan Widran

KEITH RICHIE, Ambient Highways

A simple cursory glance at the extensive discography of Keith Richie paints the image of an extremely prolific ambient electronic composer. Rolling powerfully, with numerous exciting twists and turns, from The Maestoso Interstellar Suite (2006) to his adventurous, innovative, sonically intricate and supremely soulful new epic collection Ambient Highways, we see a multi-faceted discography that allows us, if we’re new to the Richie experience, to explore his sci-fi inspired yearnings through inner and outer space for days.

Yet examine his list of recordings more granularly – and this would be in keeping with the extremely sonically detailed aesthetic of his keyboard centric productions – we learn that most of these works are from after 2015 – the year had a massive and cathartic breakthrough and created the music he’s now releasing as Ambient Highways. On the webpage where interested fans can order the collection as a limited edition 180 gram multi-colored 2XLP vinyl – an extraordinarily bold offering from an indie artist in this genre – the artist pens a highly personal, revelatory essay that begins “It is now 2021 and a short century ago in 2015 I wrote Ambient Highways. What started as a way to escape many personal things in my life soon became the hidden key to all the locks on any forms of expression for me.”

In simpler terms, Richie was undergoing a severe bout of the condition all creative minds dread – writer’s block. He was struggling to uncover a sound that was uniquely him. “I needed to see if I could get out of the writer’s block that I had been in -- musically -- for the past several years,” he says. “I didn't feel I was able to fully express the music I was hearing in my head and knew that my equipment was one of my limiting factors, so I started a long and overdue process of reinvesting in myself and my craft so I could bring that music out. So, the album really began as an exercise using new controllers and reference monitors I had acquired, and I believe I was finally able to surface and express what was stored up for so long.”

His journey, and now ours as we listen from track one through 12 as a colorful, multi-faceted narrative/travelogue, began with the dreamlike excursion “Neutrino,” where he paints an elegant piano melody over an infectious, hypnotically repeating synth “bubbles” motif, caressing both elements in a spacious, ever-intensifying symphonic ambience. Allowing us to experience the process as it unfolded in his studio, his (and our) next track was “V Feeling,” a moody, immersive piece that begins with a gentle guitar strum sound, incorporates soulful retro keys and leads to an expansive, meditative state of healing and relaxation (my take as a listener, not necessarily Richie’s as composer). Composing those two tracks led him to a place he had “not felt or seen in a long while. Adding more and more until all their notes fell into place forming the letter I’d been needing to send for a long time.”

The project kicked into even higher gear when Richie’s wife Kayla heard the piece that became the title track, the deeply emotional, sensually symphonic and film score lush “Ambient Highways.” Its blend of a romantic earthiness and surreal sense of space exploration inspired her to create the stunning cover art which is an epic achievement in itself, perhaps best experienced in the large LP rendering. It’s a bright city skyline woven together with interconnecting highways whose orange glow represents the fast pace of life on earth. Look above however to the deep blue and mystical purple heavens and there, perhaps – and as long as we listen to Richie’s music as the soundtrack to our visual journey – we can find spiritual solace amidst the chaos. Richie wrote these tracks in 2015, but it’s almost as if these compositions were meant for our time, when we most need them, coming off a pandemic-addled year so much stress and anxiety.

Richie felt that Kayla’s artwork put a visual on something he could only feel and perfectly displayed where his path was leading. From there, the concept grew and Richie felt free to work his magic via an abundance of hypnotic soundscape magic that shares musical explorations stemming from his lifelong passion for science fiction and beckoning us, slowly and seductively to ponder what it would be like to time travel, live concurrently in parallel universes and even encounter life on other planets yet unknown.

Now that we know Richie’s personal story, it’s up to us, his faithful listeners, to find our own stories as we explore his artistry, from the trippy synth and string fired cool of “Xenogenesis,” the initial haunting sorrow and ultimate elegant hope of “Weeping Angels” and the artist’s exquisite (and decidedly earthbound) “water suite” of “Faith’s Song (Ptilopeteri Waltz) – a sweet, sparkling slow dance dedicated to one of his daughters – and a cautiously graceful excursion to the desolation of “Arctic Shores,” enhanced with lyrical synth woodwind harmonies. These water themes are explored in even more depth on another of the album’s singles (along with “V Feeling”), a mysterious, tribal percussion and “out there” synth romp chronicling the majesty of “Neptune’s Awakening.”

The track that perhaps best captures Richie’s own renewed sense of purpose since breaking through with the music of Ambient Highways is the warmly inviting, soaring and hopeful mini-symphony “Keeping the Dream Alive,” whose ultimate whimsey and beckoning synth angel voicings speak equally to us as we navigate through the darkness of this past year into the light in our own personal and collective lives. If any nagging doubt remains that we can get to a better place, we just need to hop onto Richie’s Ambient Highways for direction.


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