Alex Scheffer aka Cell is a master of deep, melodic electronica, one of the most gifted composers working in new-school ambient and downtempo. He is also a sound designer of great finesse and subtlety. When his two sides - the instinctive artist and the technical craftsman - are in perfect alignment, the result is some of the most awe-inspiring ambient trance and tech on the planet.
Cell (Alex Scheffer)
country of origin:
Ambient trance, spacemusic, ambient techno, ethno ambient
00's - 10's
- Live at Glade Festival 2005 (2007, Sofa Manifesto)
- Ketama Live (2008, World Music Club)
- 9980 (2012, Ultimae Records)
Reviewed by Mike G
Alex Scheffer aka Cell is a master of deep, melodic electronica, one of the most gifted composers working in new-school (i.e. dance related) ambient/downtempo. He is also a sound designer of great finesse and subtlety. When his two sides - the instinctive artist and the technical craftsman - are in perfect alignment, the result is some of the deepest, most awe-inspiring ambient trance and tech on the planet. Scheffer is also a signature Ultimae Records artist, even though he has released relatively little music on the label. His sound certainly ticks all the Ultimae boxes: panoramic, cosmic, mysterious, melodic and skillfully engineered.
Scheffer was making electronic music from a very young age; he was just 10 years old when his musician parents gave him a Juno 106 Roland keyboard synthesiser. He schooled himself early in the music of the great Berlin-school electronic bands and also studied music formally including piano. By his late teens he was playing in bands but professionally his music career started with commercial production work for short films, advertising and dance productions. His first track as Cell appeared on Ultimae Records in 2001.
Scheffer's best albums up until in 2012 are actually several of his live recordings, while his finest studio tracks from this period are exclusive one-offs that he licensed to various-artists compilations. Two stunning examples are "Audio Deepest Night" from Fahrenheit Project Part Four (2003, Ultimae Records) and "The Gate" from Mountain High 2 (2005, Candyflip Records). The haunting two-chord minor key progression of "Audio Deepest Night" is a marvel of melodic layering and deep-field sound production, fuzzy-edged and exceptionally rich in texture. "The Gate" is utterly hypnotic; a slow tribal groove with crisper sounds but the same deep layering and incredible 3D sound design. There is a sense of "being there" comparable to the productions of UK composer Matt Hillier aka Ishq.
Rather different live renditions of both these tracks appear on the album Live At Glade Festival 2005 (note: "The Gate" is misnamed as "Misty Morning".) Both this and the Ketama Live (2008) album capture much of what is great about Cell's first decade, and some of the featured compositions are also exclusive to these releases. "T-Ion Part 1" is a standout, scattering spontaneous percussion patterns over a liquid ambient trance groove. Even well-worn genre sounds like the Arabic flavoured ambient dub of "Shiny Girl" and the mid-tempo doof of "Hawaii Transit" stand out because of his attention to the arrangements; note the skillful way he builds intensity and constructs harmonies with his layers.
In contrast to his live albums and amazing one-off tracks, the two Cell studio albums released to date are somewhat underwhelming. The Tibetan-themed Phonic Peace (2005) is pleasant ethno-ambient beats by the numbers, while the full-length Ultimae debut Hanging Masses (2010) is well produced but strangely empty inside. With the exception of "Calling", most of its tracks crucially lack a melodic core or driving theme. Nice title, though. Hanging masses is a perfect visual description the best moments in Cell's recorded legacy: huge structures that somehow defy gravity and float high above and around the listener.
The studio album that Alex Scheffer seemed destined to make - the one that his earlier tracks suggest he always had in him - finally arrived in 2012. Surprisingly, it's a collaboration, recorded under a new moniker Connect.Ohm with Japanese composer Hidetoshi Koizum.
Much of the magnificent 9980 fits comfortably enough within the slow, panoramic canvas that Cell fans will already be familiar with, though very much at the muted end of that spectrum. The lush cosmic sound that he does so brilliantly is evident in the simple bass chords of "Snow Park", for example, which glides with all the mass of a deep space cruiser, nudged gently along with gentle synth arpeggios and a simple piano phase. To such timeless sounds Koizumi often adds an odd but subtle textural variety on the album; not quite clicks and glitches but...something. It's an intriguing and effective collaboration.
Without upsetting the album's flow, the last few tracks on 9980 seem to hark back to old-school sounds. The exceptionally rich, cloud-like chords of "Gentle Perception" bear a passing resemblance to Brian Eno's spacemusic classic "Ascent", while "Time To Time By Time" echoes 70's art rock ambient with its glistening drones and sparse pinging notes.
Since 2012 there has been no more releases from Scheffer under any guise, though he's played live at various outdoor festivals around Europe as recently as 2019.