Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Piano Guys - Hits Volume 1

Ironically enough, my first ever contact with The Piano Guys was with the first song on their first album released – Michael Meets Mozart. It was not their first creative effort chronologically; that was the mash-up of Taylor Swift’s Love Story and Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, an auditory experience of its own. The Piano Guys are an American musical group with four members: Jon Schmidt, Steven Sharp Nelson, Paul Anderson and Al van der Beek. They gained fame through YouTube where they uploaded their adaptations and mash-ups of different pop, rock and even classical songs, composed almost entirely on pianos and cellos, with the occasional vocals and other instruments. Their adaptations of famous tunes are innovative and playful, and even most classical music aficionados should have little cause to be upset over the mash-ups of different music genres and classical music.

The Piano Guys’ first album – Hits Volume 1 – was a self-released one, however the following albums have been released by Sony Masterworks. The album alternates its adaptions of classical music with pop, dance, and even cinematic scores, creating an unexpectedly interlinked series of tracks. The Piano Guys have given their own unique signature to all of their works, no matter how differently the original pieces sound. There is no snobbery over preferences of musical genres – all of the works get equal attention and effort.

Michael Meets Mozart, a piece The Piano Guys themselves call a ‘cool hip hop/classical mash-up’, is an original piece, yet created from over a 100 different tracks. The combination of the piano and cello, with the added kick drum and mouth percussion, creates an interesting wave-like piece of music. The track switches between moments of calm build-up and cresting moments of sound that leave the listener with a feeling of urgency, although of what, it is not sure. The occasional drawn-out chords of the cello contrast interestingly with the faster melody played on the piano.

As Michael Meets Mozart ends, an adaptation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata begins. It is difficult to explain but The Piano Guys’ cover simply sounds modernized. Bonus points for those who recognize the second work by Beethoven that they have included in their rendition.

The rhythm and mood changes, as Moonlight turns into Without You, originally a pop song by David Guetta. The Piano Guys have created an interesting cover of it, morphing the dance music into a light melody, well-suited to act as a final track to the soundtrack of an action movie – the moment when all danger has passed and the future seems bright. Yet, it must be noted that the dance element has not completely disappeared from the track. When listening to the song, at times it sounds like the track is going somewhere – the refrains already picks up speed in the original track and that is only amplified in this version with the help of the piano and vocals.

Returning once again to classical music, The Cello Song is a re-imagining of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite 1 where Steven Sharp Nelson piled seven cello arrangements on top of each other. The work both pays homage to Bach and also contains something new in it that has purely come from The Piano Guys.

After Bach, there is another sharp turn in genres and eras. The Piano Guys’ instrumental cover of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep is clearer and more melodic than the original version. The cello brings out the melancholy mood of the piece and the piano once again adds urgency to the composition.

The following Cello Wars needs no introductions as even people who have lived most of their lives in a cave in a tundra have at least heard of Star Wars. Apparently one of their most challenging productions, the creation of Cello Wars took them over 6 months. Paying homage to the original composer, John Williams, Cello Wars is a masterful re-imagining of the film music, giving a new sound to the familiar tune, and still retaining its menacing flavour.  Plus, the added visuals are just plain fun.

Returning from science fiction to classical music, Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana retains all of its passion and power in The Piano Guys’ rendition. They used 6 piano tracks, 43 cello tracks, 3 percussion tracks and 48 vocal tracks to give the familiar favourite a new but no less masterful sound. The accompanying video recorded on a race track seems very out-of-place initially, but oddly enough it grows into the music, and upon subsequent viewings, the jarring effect has disappeared.

Bring Him Home, originally from the musical Les Misérables, has a haunting yet comforting aspect to it. The piano and cello rise to the forefront in their respective solos, yet work in unison. The story behind this rendition adds melancholy to an already melancholy piece. 

The fast-paced and cheerful Charlie Brown Medley brings the listener out of the melancholy mood created by the previous track. The piece, played mainly on the piano, percussion and the strings of a cello, is genuinely happy – there are no other words to describe it.

Another abrupt mood and sound change comes from the subsequent track – Rock Meets Rachmaninoff, which is inspired by Rachmaninoff Prelude in C sharp minor. The element of rock compliments the classical piece surprisingly well. Although the piano is continuously in the forefront, the drums, the bass, and the electric guitar never once lose their powerful sound in the background.

The album is completed with an original piece by Jon Schmidt – All of Me. The track ties the album together beautifully, being both powerful and cheerful. The accompanying video displays the pure joy and passion Schmidt has put into his instrumental piece and so does the track without it.

The Limited Founder’s Edition has two bonus tracks: originally a rock ballad More than Words (originally a rock ballad) the traditional lullaby Twinkle Lullaby. The first track has two different versions: one with vocals by J Rice. Although the version with the lyrics is nothing to be frowned at, the instrumental version works better with the album on the whole, retaining its complete effect. When listening to the album in full and in the intended order, then those tracks may slightly throw off the flow of the album, but weirdly enough, ending an album with Twinkle Lullaby is a humorously on-the-nose way to end anything, especially a music album.

The album is a wonderful musical experience, putting a new spin on many old favourites. The Piano Guys have put the album together by alternating pop, rock and classical music, and if most listeners weren't painfully familiar with most of these pieces, then all these accompanying genre divisions would disappear instantly. The album flows together, even though the tracks are sometimes even jarringly different. This reviewer also strongly recommends watching the videos accompanying the songs as they have clearly enjoyed making these videos as well as these songs. 

No comments: