After Grant Hazard Outerbridge released his 2016 debut ambient piano album, Obsolete, under the moniker Memorybell, he started going down the modular-synth rabbit hole. Modules can vary from altering frequency, amplitude and spectrum to dynamic control and voltage, giving a musician a wider set of sonic possibilities.
It took the classically trained pianist about two years to find his bearings and work in the modular-synth environment. He equates experimenting with the synths — turning knobs, mangling, altering and smearing sounds — to being a mad scientist. Notes can be sustained or reshaped into resonant impulses, while piano phrases can be bounced between filters and echo into themselves.
“It’s like building with Legos, but then you get to listen to your results in addition to looking at it,” he says. It was really intimidating, but it was also super-fascinating and fulfilling. I couldn't literally not think of something further away from playing the piano. And that's what I wanted, you know, to force myself to grow as an artist and be able to communicate more complex, interesting ideas.”
Not long after getting a handle on modular synths, Outerbridge stumbled across Freq Boutique, a monthly open-mic night at Fort Greene, hosted by WMD, the Denver-based Eurorack modular-synth and guitar-pedal company.
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Outerbridge became a regular at Freq Boutique and eventually joined the Colorado Modular Synth Society, playing newer ambient compositions that he’d been working on, some of which hushed the crowd.
“There were songs where people were dead silent while I was playing,” he says. “That a really crowded bar just goes totally quiet, it’s a feeling that sends shivers down my spine. It’s like literally everybody is stopping and paying attention. There must be something in this song that's worth keeping.”
Outerbridge took seven songs that prompted that kind of response and recorded them for the new album, Solace, which drops on October 2 on the Australian label Hidden Shoal. Many of those songs for the album were written in 2018, when he was busy and stressed, spending six hours a day scoring film projects. During his downtime, he worked on his own material as a way to stay sane during that time, thinking, “What are some of these calming thoughts that can ease your mind or make your anxious mind feel calmer and at peace?”
“We still need to find a way to feel centered and human and not like just crazy, insane people reacting to every little thing that happens, which is how I personally was feeling about everything,” Outerbridge says.
While most of Solace was recorded using his modular synthesizer, “Sigh of Floes” is a piano-based song that starts in the neoclassical vein and gradually morphs into the ambient realm as echoes start to swell and smear sounds together. Hidden Shoal founder Cam Merton shot the video for the song.
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The cover of Solace is a photo of the crumbled remains of a hotel that was built in the 1800s. Not long after COVID-19 lockdowns started in mid-March, Outerbridge and his family rented a secluded cabin near a hot spring between Gunnison and Crested Butte.
“There's just something about that shot that just really resonated with me,” he says. “It's crumbling. It's falling apart. People used to come here 100 years ago in the early 1900s, during the last pandemic, to try and heal and unwind. And then here we are, years later, and I'm staring at the crumbling version of what came before that. It just really sat with me and really affected me.”
While Outerbridge says he’s never been so musically productive as during the pandemic, noting that he’s got about three albums' worth of material recorded, he’s also offering his mixing and mastering services to other musicians who have been using the past six months to make music.
“I think the pandemic forced a lot of people to re-examine what's most important to them,” he says, “with no endpoint definitively in sight. It's been crazy to me how much amazing, good, interesting and evocative emotional content I get exposed to in my musical circles by people that obviously have always had it in them.”