Studio Horizon (2005)
Review by Bill Binkelman
Tony O'Connor continues to be one of the most under-appreciated artists here in America, despite enormous popularity in his native Australia. I can't imagine why as O'Connor has talent to burn, there's obvious sincerity in his compositions, and he makes beautiful melodic music that works equally well in the background or to direct listening scrutiny. Memento, his latest effort, showcases his most romantic, nostalgic and glowing side, featuring seven tracks on which he plays a combination of piano, synth strings, EWI oboe and flute, and acoustic guitar. I have followed his career going back to the late 1990s and this CD represents yet another refinement of his skills and art. From the opening sweeping lyricism of "Memoir" with piano and strings carrying the listener along on gently swaying (and at times dramatic) surges of genuinely sweet melodies, to the concluding "Gentle Wind" (with nature sounds of waves lapping at the shore) and its soft piano and lush synth strings that build into a dramatic statement of closure to the recording, Memento paints pictures of intimacy, warmth and memories of loved ones.
One of my favorite songs here is "September Moon" which begins with piano and plucked harp synths in a somewhat melancholy mood, despite the uptempo pace. O'Connor puts the acoustic guitar front and center for part of the nine-minute song and also employs orchestral strings in conjunction with the guitar and piano, having the strings both plucked and bowed. The refrain on this song is haunting in the best sense, i.e. it evokes the image of a moon partially obscured by clouds. "Betty's Song" is one of O'Connor's intensely personal pieces, written for his mother as she was passing away. It avoids sounding maudlin or morose, and instead comes across as a sad but not overly so solo piano number. "Once in a Dream" puts his EWI playing out front at the start (the EWI is played like a wind instrument but is also electronic, the letters standing for "electric/electronic wind instrument"). It has a particularly warm tone to it, without sounding artificial or overtly non-acoustic. Later, orchestral strings take over and the composition becomes somewhat neo-classical or soundtrack-ish in nature, and finally flute and oboe return the piece back into the realm of new age music, counterpointed by plucked and strummed harp. The piece seesaws (not unpleasantly) between drama and subtle evocation.
Realistically, I don't dare hope to steer thousands of new listeners to Tony O'Connor's music, although it would be nice. For whatever reason, American new age and adult contemporary music fans are missing out on one of the most consistently enjoyable musicians recording today. Australians certainly are clued in, bless 'em. While Memento doesn't break significant new ground for the artist, it adds to his already impressive list of recordings and quality never goes out of style anyway. I feel like a broken record saying this about another one of this man's recordings, but once again I find myself recommending his music as an example of warm, romantic, and instantly accessible new age music.