Neon Heaven is Transcendent Yet Accessible Classical Music

by Justin Finney


Neon Heaven Nathan Felix

The demise of classical music in the United States is something that has been a topic of debate among music critics for some while. Slate writer Mark Vanhoenacker created a stir online in 2014 when he cited a range of evidence like declining album sales, low attendance at concerts, and aging audiences as signs that it was time to sign the epitaph for one of Western Society’s oldest and highest forms of music.

To an extent, I think Vanhoenacker might be right; nevertheless, there are musicians out there that are bringing classical music to new audiences, and here in Austin, musician and composer Nathan Felix has made applause worthy strides doing just that with intimate house shows and collaborative stage concerts alongside local pop musicians. His background is fascinating: a former punk-rocker turned self-taught classical composer who is now releasing his second symphonic recording in just three years. The album is called Neon Heaven, and it’s a real, honest-to-God legit classical recording. And perhaps more impressively, it’s a really damn good one.

If my tone sounds like one of surprise, it’s not for any particular reason pertaining to Nathan personally, I just simply wasn’t in the know. His first album of orchestral music, The Curse the Cross & the Lion, is a powerful and majestic symphonic work of cinematic scope. Neon Heaven follows suit in some ways (it still sounds like a film score at times) but is also a much darker and contemplative sounding work. It also features a choir that sings lyrics the composer penned in Latin— a feature that adds an entirely new element of music and meaning, especially when you read the English translations.

The first six songs are all tied together as the choral portion of the album with the last three remaining pieces written as instrumentals. The opening track “Love Song for Anita” begins with a majestic swell of voices that sounds like it could play in the background of a slow camera-pan of post-battle carnage or some otherworldly natural wonder like the earth rising over the moon’s horizon. Midway through, the vocals temporarily drop out and give way to a shared melody on piano and harp that transitions to an upbeat section played on both piano and xylophone. But this is short lived, as the song closes with a solemnly sung section by the choir. As you might be able to tell from this description, this song encapsulates one of the greatest attributes of classical music that make it unique from most popular music; namely, you often can’t predict which direction a song is going to take once it gets going. Jazz music shares this unpredictability factor.

The lyrical content of Neon Heaven begins optimistically enough but turns darker as the album progresses. The vicissitudes of love dominate the story with a splash of world paranoia thrown in for good measure. On the close of “Harmonious Harlot” a solitary voice imploringly sings the words “Ululamus, Caritas, Dei” which roughly translates to “ Howl, love of God, death.”

“Mistress of Mistrust” begins with a suspenseful sounding cello melody that reminds me of the opening measures of Bach’s Cello Prelude in G Minor, albeit with a darker and more ominous feel. You can almost envision Helena Bonham Carter or Keira Knightley running across a cobble stone street in some flustered romantic state of agitation in a period piece film when you listen to this melody. Maybe that sounds funny, but it’s meant as a compliment. (Who else in Austin is doing this kind of thing?)

“The 4th Moirai” is a short transitional piece that opens with choppy strings playing a descending melody down a major scale. The vibe is once again suspense and urgency, but this time with a latent tinge of hope infused by the solo string melody. A bit of pop influence emerges on this piece and comes to the forefront on the following and closing track “Dreamsicle”: a solo piece written for harp that plays an arpeggio melody that makes it sound just like a guitar.

Overall, this is an amazing album. I was really blown away by the complexity and beauty of the compositions (especially the choral parts) on Neon Heaven.  If I had any quips, it would be that the album cover’s 1980s design doesn’t really sync with the feel of the music. So it’s a bit misleading in that regard. Also, whether it’s intentional or a sign of the present state of the composer’s songwriting vocabulary, the tactic of writing a melody, sticking to it, and transposing it up and down the scale gets used a lot. But overall this seems pretty inconsequential to the bigger picture since all the melodies are pretty superb across the board. And there’s nothing wrong with repetition. Phillip Glass is renowned and revered for this same style of classical composition. So in closing, Nathan Felix’s Neon Heaven more than holds its own against any classical music being written today— an even more impressive achievement when you consider he’s self-taught.

Nathan Felix is releasing this symphonic work and celebrating his birthday this Saturday, May 14th at the Museum of Human Achievement.

Justin Finney moved from Oklahoma to Austin TX in 2004 and has never looked back. He played in the local band Shortwave Party for a few years and attributes most of his social capital in this fair city to that experience.