Closing in on three decades as one of contemporary instrumental and world music’s most prolific and stylistically expansive composers and artists, Nicholas Gunn created something extraordinary with his 2020 album Pacific Blue, which met our collective anxiety early in the pandemic era perfectly. In my review I called it “a peacemaking, perspective and consciousness shifting collection that seems primed to help its listeners through this age of the coronavirus without having had the foresight that music facilitating this would be a collective necessity.”
Having his spiritual and musical intuition attuned through the unavoidable swirl of events of 2020, he makes an even bolder statement with Sound Condition, a soulful and fluid, atmospherically expansive and emotionally intense set that transcends the usual relaxation and spiritual escapism of his chosen genres to reflect on the sociopolitical chaos and make a powerful – and empowering - socially conscious statement on humanity’s need to do better.
While most artists in this musical realm focus their musical endeavors on taking us away from the maelstrom of reality – and who could ever fault them, considering the pain and struggles of human existence? – Gunn’s six hypnotic, free-flowing shimmering electric guitar and percussive flute driven instrumentals and the four thought-provoking vocal tracks featuring the lush ethereal soul vocals of longtime collaborator Alina Renae reflect a different kind of hands on, in the moment as it happens artistic vision and mission.
“If 2020 were to have a soundtrack, it may sound like this,” Gunn says. “At least to me it does. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that being in sound condition (in every respect) matters. Sound condition, in its actual definition, means to improve ourselves and our surroundings. When I look back at this past year, we have seen absurdity on a level not experienced in anyone's lifetime. The ability to manipulate mass audiences, create chaos, and divide and infect society can be attributed to a few people in control who lack the very definition of being in sound condition. It's the antithesis of a life lived with a deep concern for humanity. A reality created only by the self- desire to suit one's own personal agenda.”
Often, vocals on the projects of instrumental artists are there for commercial reasons, or maybe to add a touch of romance or voice meditation. The four vocals here – featuring Gunn’s poetic, soul penetrating lyrics – not only showcase the full force of his skills as a songwriter, but also form the emotional core of Sound Condition. On “Angels,” over a deep groove and surrounded by dreamy synth atmospheres, Alina expresses his notion that it’s not easy to choose certain roads in our lives, and we may stumble and fall along the way, but when we do, angels are always there to help us. As she sings, ““Angels have found me here tonight/And angels/Have wiped my tears tonight.”
The raw and visceral hard truths of a broken heart pierce through via Alina’s heartfelt vocals and Gunn’s hypnotic soundscape on “Broken,” which uses phrases we can all apply beyond ourselves to the global situation: “Is this really ever making any sense?” “I’m lost, I’m hurt/Out of control,” “I feel like I’m losing ground.” There are heavy references to being in a “drunken haze” and “just getting high.” But the real solution? Llove of course – from a single significant other we have split with, or maybe from the divine. She sings: “And I want to be in love with you again/I’m feeling broken.” Gunn and Alina are at their most personally romantic on “Just Us,” which declares that no matter where the road leads from here, “I feel loved by you/I wouldn’t change a thing for us” and “It’s always worth the fight/To make our place that matters most.”
The lyrics on the haunting final vocal “The Promise” find Gunn overcoming the shame of letting a loved one down, perhaps wishing he could go back to a time before he believed lies as a way to justify his needs. Yet (again through the seductive voice of Alina) he vows: “I will always be beside you friend/We are brothers and sisters to the end/Together we will fight, you see. We’ll overcome and this will be the end.” Never has a song so eloquently been about a heartrending personal experience yet been so universally applicable that it could be used as an anthem of the American Spirit moving forward from this dark time.
As for Gunn’s sonically intricate, richly textured and sweepingly melodic instrumentals, we can glean something of a narrative through his titles. On “Flow,” he balances rising the atmospheric energy with the breathy sweetness of his flute. “Language,” which is perhaps a reflection on the power of words to both hurt and incite and also uplift and inspire, he fuses wild synth imaginings with the stark grounding of elegant piano passages. “The Body is a Temple,” no doubt a reference to the sacredness and gift of life, is an earthy flute meditation reflective of Gunn’s classic Arizona and National Park oriented albums.
He then moves us forward with the glow (and sparkling, hypnotic guitar and piano energy) of “Shine,” reminds us of the necessity of being “Sound Condition” on the whimsical, earthy meets ethereal vibes of the title track, and brings us to a place where we are prepared for new revelations on “The Unfolding.” This final track begins with Gunn’s trademark flute backed by soft piano harmonies and surrounded as it evolves by caressing atmospheres – as if to reveal the reality that the universe still embraces us no matter how much we stumble, how far we fall from our ideals and how far humanity is from the sound condition we need to have to survive and thrive moving ahead.