Review: Sven Sundberg, Crystal Clear

Sven Sundberg, Crystal Clear

16 May, 2014 Alice Neiley

What is one supposed to expect when an album is categorized as ‘instrumental pop?’ Perhaps movie soundtracks, or the theme songs for hit TV shows like “Taxi” or “Friday Night Lights,” and though Sven Sundberg’s newest album, Crystal Clear could easily be applied to the screen, which I’ll elaborate on later, it’ll more likely win a Grammy than an Emmy.

Sundberg’s background is in organ, piano, and saxophone, eventually adding a Yamaha Tyros4 keyboard to the mix, all of which might account for some of the experimental, electronic, yet empty-church-like relaxation of his music. He describes his melodies as simple, intending to rejuvenate and soothe the soul, whether musically upbeat or dark.  I would also add that the album does, in fact, sink in to the listener like the soundtrack of a movie sinks into its characters and plot, defining how the world is experienced for as long as the music lasts—in this case, sleepy, hazy—at times elevator music, at times lovely, even inspiring.

Though the compositions have some surprise twists, the overall tone of the music as a whole seems just as Sundberg wanted it—peaceful, nothing flashy, nothing complex. The instruments seem to be electronically produced:  guitar, snare drum percussion, synthesizer percussion, organ, wind chimes, flutes, electronic keyboard, and piano.  The instruments compliment each other in every track, the percussion provides a steady background rhythm as the piano, flute, and guitar trade the melody back and forth; the percussion also often marks the trade off with an escalated tempo and riff into a cymbol clash.

Just for electronic interest’s sake, the Grammy for best instrumental pop album is often presented to producers, engineers, and/or mixers included on the album, as well as the album artist, because the technicalities of this genre are just as, if not more important than the instruments, or even the melodies.  This is definitely true of Crystal Clear; the mixing and overlap of these electronically produced instruments is essential to its flowing effect.  But Sundberg’s music isn’t just named instrumental pop because of its engineering and design—it’s instrumental pop because the music itself designs the listener’s feelings.

On this album, Sundberg works just as much with collecting sounds to create an atmosphere as with melody:  “Light You Up” starts out with immediate percussion and a strong, optimistic melody played by piano, then comes the synth, which only adds to the cluster of brightness, and whether you like electronic music or not, will more than likely lift your heart.  The appropriately titled, “Seasons Change,” continues the sound collections, but with a lower temperature, like we just moved into the shade.  The percussion wafts in, then the strong, single note piano again, followed by a single synth note that sounds like a raindrop, all but percussion eventually disappearing into the electronic guitar which takes over the melody before giving it back to piano and, soon, organ and thick mass of synthesizer.  These two tunes, if necessary, could represent the basic colors of the album—songs of warm sun, songs of the chilly forest.
So, in the bright, inspirational jog “Fantasia (In Your Love),” there’s almost an ABA structure, a heavier emphasis on guitar in what might be deemed the chorus, perhaps even more intense feelings of the aforementioned love; drums open the darker, piano dominated “Clarity of Vision,” resurfacing when piano briefly passes the melody to guitar, and again when guitar passes it back and a hissing sound appears, as if letting the old air out of something (perhaps the ‘Fantasia’), and strings follow as if breathing in the new (perhaps reality); these light progressive rock elements, whether warm or cool, give way to overpowering, dreamy synthesizer effects in the title track, “Crystal Clear,” and the temperature goes placid, comfortable, and therefore unremarkable, leveling the playing ground right smack in the middle of the album.

Sundberg hikes his own landscape in Crystal Clear, particularly in the second half—he seems to climb to the top of each grassy hill before trying see what’s next.  But when he does see what’s next from the top of that hill, he sees it clearly and goes forward, bearing memories of the past, but not dwelling there.  For example, the syncopation, percussive effects, and more distinct melody of “This Time It’s Real” are all fresh and unexpected, but the nature of the percussion, new synthesizer effects, and more distinct melody being the fresh and unexpected things, is a throwback to track 6, “The Valley of Voe,” thus the whole ‘embracing the future while still cradling the past’ thing.

While occasionally Sundberg’s music does sound like the electronically synthesized instrumental soundtrack to an 80s movie, or the music inside an 80s elevator, it’s mostly an emotional shape shifter, sliding its way into the listener’s body and day, helping everything, even the buildings of the city, the bricks themselves, shed a little tension.

This push and pull between bright and dark, between the addition of new sounds and the repetition of old themes, make the music simultaneously hopeful and nostalgic, but not confused.  Crystal Clear is meant to be restful, and it is, indeed, its own place through which the instrumentals saunter and jaunt, or away from which everything they suddenly departs in an unexpected burst of desire, maybe following a stray organ chord, maybe on the bare back of a wild, new percussion beat. Either way, for the most part, instrumental pop does its engineering job in the case of Sundberg’s newest album, but the composer himself goes for an award bigger than the Grammy: the design of an endless, rather beautiful mood field, where the listener can go with the simple press of a play button.

Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating: 3 stars out of 5