From YouTube to iTunes, Steven Sharp Nelson and Al van der Beek bring us their first album: “The Piano Guys.” The two musical masterminds remake popular songs from the past few decades with classical twists.
Although Nelson and van der Beek are fine talents with good rhythm and imagination, some of their songs can be overwhelming. In “Cello Wars,” the duo mixes five songs from the “Star Wars” soundtrack: “The Imperial March;” “Duel of the Fates;” “May the Force Be With You;” “Star Wars Main Theme;” and “Cantina Band.” Although each song is played beautifully, they don’t blend well together and lack transition.
This could be the fault of the variety of sound files that Nelson and van der Beek use as fan-service. With the sounds of light sabers clashing, lasers firing, wookies roaring, and Darth Vader breathing, the song feels cluttered and unfocused. The memorable melodies of those John Williams songs are lost behind the sparkle.
All of these sounds distract from what works in the piece, namely the smooth electric cello and dramatic chanting that plays over the song’s climax. “Cello Wars” only works in its original Youtube video – which has the amazing image of Darth Vader dancing with an accordion.
Some of The Piano Guys’ other songs suffer similar issues to “Cello Wars.” Most times that the duo try to combine more than two songs, such as “Over the Rainbow/Simple Gifts,” they lose focus. Others feel dull and forgettable.
But with “Peponi,” a rendition of Coldplay’s “Paradise,” Nelson and van der Beek show their strength and genius. They don’t simply copy “Paradise” with classical instruments; they change its tone and style to transform it into their own masterpiece.
Alex Boye, a Latter-day Saint singer, sings “Peponi” in Swahili (“peponi” meaning “paradise”), giving the song a mythical sound. When Nelson and van der Beek sing backup for Boye, the lyrics resemble hymn. His performance adds a strong religious tone to the song, which is aided by the African percussion instruments.
The Piano Guys will impress and entertain lovers of both classical and pop music. In some cases, listeners may enjoy The Piano Guys’ renditions more than the originals. I certainly do.