The catalog of American composer Keith Kenniff spans over a dozen releases as Helios and nearly as many as Goldmund since 2004. Kenniff’s music deals with subtlety, and the variance between these projects loosely follows a few signifiers; Goldmund favors post-classical piano, Mint Julep, a project with his partner Hollie, is shoegaze pop, while the lines around his Helios project are intentionally hazier. Within the alias, Kenniff glides between minimal ambient electronics and more robust instrumentation, all run through his mini-cassette recorder for a distinct wobble. 2018’s Veriditas, his first Helios LP on Ghostly International, found Kenniff shaping verdant landscapes of harmonic sound, focusing on texture over structure. He followed it up in 2020 with Domicile, an even quieter synth-toned ode to the indoors. Now he returns to the electro-acoustic movement that marked much of his earlier output; the music of Espera is lush, livelier, and perhaps the most singular in his run. Titles are telling in Kenniff’s work, and Espera, a Spanish word meaning “wait,” speaks to the producer’s patient and cinematic craft. The record balances engagement and contemplation with a billowing accessible lightness, and reveals Helios at a compelling intersection, composing songs as vivid and three-dimensional as they are characteristically modernist and understated.
“Patience is something I aspire to in my life and profession,” says Kenniff, who recorded Esperaat night, his preferred mode, when life is uncluttered and unrushed. While the Helios project has fit neatly into the beat-less category in recent years, Kenniff felt a natural pull to pivot for these sessions, embracing downtempo percussion, both acoustic and electronically rendered. Arrangements also swelled with layers of guitar and piano, made familiar with his usual tape treatment giving the material a warmer, closer feel, homemade yet expansive, vibrant yet peaceful. “The textural aesthetic of the instruments was as important as the melody, harmony, or rhythm itself,” he adds.
The album opener, “Fainted Fog,” reintroduces this fuller, panoramic version of Helios. Woozy synths give way to a propulsive drum pattern as the track’s characteristics populate in the haze. A piano plays between the beat, and another synth solos overtop, ascending towards the peak with an exhale of live kicks and looping guitar. For every bold moment on Espera, there are more muted, counter-balancing stretches; “Intertwine” offers one of the most meditative. Strums mingle with keys in the front half before the beat returns to deliver a hypnotic nod.
Kenniff sees each song as integral to the whole — “if you took one out, it would be like tearing a page from a book,” he says — but still functional independently, like a series of self-contained epics. “All The While” best represents this intention; a song in three equal parts constructed on a resonant drum sequence. Shimmering synth notes surface first, then pastoral guitar and piano flutters, converging at the end to evaporate into the ether.
Nearly 20 years in, Kenniffs has mastered the signature slow-building emotional arc. Take the golden-hued “Lineoa,” which blooms from a simple guitar phrase to a fully symphonic, climactic closing scene. Ever curious, he welcomes new sounds across the album, like the sinuous flute on “A Familiar Place” and the divine, digitized vocal presence on “Emeralds.” These production choices keep the Helios project from receding into the background, even if the artist himself is private, and the ambient space in which he thrives is often uniquely tied to other activities in our lives. On Espera, Kenniff is a producer and multi-instrumentalist leaning into the rich details, and the vistas he’s surveyed are wider and more captivating than ever.