The unique appeal of Ryan Vail is in his masterful blend of electronic and orchestral. Honing this skill on his solo debut, ‘Distorted Shadows’ now builds on the emotive and hypnotic charm of its predecessor. ‘For Every Silence’ embraced Ryan’s classical sensibility, themed around a beloved family piano, but it is the confident experimental synth and frank lyricism of ‘Distorted Shadows’ that elevates this record to new heights.
Ryan often eschews traditional song structures on this record; he’s playing the long game, but it works. Album opener Inside is an arresting seven-minute composition whereby gentle, melodic synth is built upon by piano and strings, and late but welcome vocals give way to an unexpected industrial outro.
Unsurprisingly, upwards of 10 different synths were used in the making of this record. The danceable, pulsating beat is often juxtaposed with blunt, confessional lyrics in the vein of John Grant, Röyksopp, and Perfume Genius.
This is perhaps best illustrated by single As It Tears. While not the strongest vocalist, Ryan’s hushed baritone is perfectly suited to this personal and immersive portrait of an artist yearning to speak their truth in an increasingly hostile music industry.
This theme runs throughout the record, explored most thoroughly in the mid-album switch up Night Moves, a collaboration with Australian singer-songwriter RY X. Here, against the backdrop of a brooding electronic instrumental, RY X performs a piece of spoken-word detailing the innate vulnerability of being an artist.
“It means opening ourselves for others to look inside/It means inspiring others to open themselves in turn / To look and feel and breath and grow”
His words are plain, but endearing in their sincerity, and this spares them from feeling contrived. An unexpected string solo in the final quarter also lends the track an added poignancy.
This is capitalised upon in follow-up Distorting. Originally released in celebration of World Piano Day, this deeply emotive track enlists the help of Rachael Boyd and Laura McCabe on violin and cello, contrasting with the heavier electronic cuts on either side. The inclusion of background noise – a creaky chair, some white noise – draws you into the melancholic melody, feeling spontaneous and uninhibited. Distorting evokes the mournful intensity of Keaton Henson, but snippets of otherworldly synth re-affirm that this is distinctly the work of Ryan Vail.
As album closer The Still and Calm gradually fades to silence, you cannot help but feel the weight of intention behind this record. It is, Ryan admits, the first record he has written where he talks about himself, and it shows. There is no doubting Ryan’s ability to defy expectation by flitting seamlessly from genre to genre, but there is also real heart and sincerity in this record that leaves a lasting impression.
His recent nomination for the Northern Ireland Music Prize – alongside Snow Patrol, And So I Watch You From Afar, and Ash, among others – is well deserved.