Album Review: Werkha – ‘Beacons EP’

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If you’re in the business of making eclectic, influence-crunching electronica that’s rooted in live instrumentation, being invited to tour with Bonobo is quite the seal of approval. It’s not hard to see how 22 year old Tom Leah caught the attention of his simian soundalike; there’s more than a passing resemblance in Werkha’s layered instrumentation and pattering beats, but like any decent opening act, Werkha packs more energy and dancefloor draw than the blissed out whirls of Black Sands or The Northern Borders. Elsewhere, another big name endorsement comes from Gilles Peterson, which is not overly surprising given Leah’s interests in jazz, Afrobeat and soul, amongst others.

Beacons kicks off with ‘Lapwing’, a jitter blend of jazz sax and soulful house that calls to mind the louche electro-swing of Parov Stelar’s work. If Jeeves & Wooster were on the dancefloor today, this would be entirely classy enough for their jazz-age cool.  Underpinning it all lurks a fuzzy, ambient bass, tying the track together with a delicate, crafted feel. (It also has an endearing video starring middle-aged yoga enthusiasts – bonus points).

 

‘Moving with the Nuisance’ is slightly less successful in its jazz reappropriation, as an electric guitar stirs over a dubby, distorted beat and T.E.E.D. style layers of micro percussion. The vocals are slightly too generic (“Put your hands up if you came to party”) and the jazz/house fusion a little too laboured.

The pace is soon ramped up again though, as the EP’s apex arrives with the excellent ‘Sidesteppin’’; a soulful house cut that is dominated by Bryony Jarman Pinto’s pure, unprocessed vocals. It’s a irresistibly crisp, silky track that builds into a solid groove, with a crunchy synth line and a beat that carries off the chorus’s claim – “I can feel my body rockin’ side to side!”.

From there, Beacons takes a slide down into the dark, with dubstep trumping jazz as the foremost influence on display. ‘Tempo Tempo’ brings a slinky, beat-driven open of clinking chimes and cymbals before succumbing to a dominant wonky synth pulse. Thankfully, this is on a different continent to aggressive brostep though; Leah commented recently, ““Since the bastardisation of the term dubstep, I have been keen to demonstrate that it doesn’t all have to sound like robots being sick” – mission accomplished. Smart, sexy and minimal, this is far more interesting than Skrilly and co.

One for those searching out unconventional grooves, Beacons is certainly an impressive calling card for Werkha. Skipping across genres carelessly, stitching his multiple interests, the EP heralds an undeniably original sound. There is a risk of lapsing into slightly bland, dinner party music – but if it’s good enough for Bonobo and Four Tet, that might no longer the criticism it once was. Next time around though, it would be nice to think you’d bother to interrupt someone mid-sentence to ask what was playing.

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Album Review: Paul Haig – ‘Kube’

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Thirty years ago, he was the founder, songwriter and frontman of cult post-punks Josef K. Today, he’s releasing an album that veers from extra-terrestrial glitch to instrumental hip-hop and electroswing. Paul Haig has never been a conformist, so it’s unsurprising that he continues to stretch himself whilst his contemporaries dwell on former glories. Kube, his eleventh solo LP, amply showcases his extreme versatility, covering everything from plastic funk to minimal techno with the kind of unashamed chameleoning worthy of Bowie.

Thematically, regardless of specific genres and influences, Kube is dominated by the sounds of space, and above all, of aliens. On the excellent ‘Cool Pig’, incomprehensible robotic vocals unite a ringing piano intro, an old school hip-hop beat, and a rising synth chorus that has more than a touch of happy hardcore lurking in its DNA. All this, backed by the kind of sound effects that 1990s plastic spaceships used to emit. Ridiculous as it sounds, it works. Equally bizarre are the echoing, liquid beats of ‘Dialog’ – a chaotic soundscape with vocals that seem to sample Ian McKellen reading The Prisoner scripts from within a Martian sandstorm.

From what I’ve written so far, you might not think that Haig is a man who believes that less is more. The Martian beats are intense. But there’s another, completely different, side to Kube that’s less space-techno, more space-jazz! This is intergalactic music, still spacey, but with “world music” influences replacing the electronic beats. ‘Four Dark Traps’ brings tribal tom-toms and didgeridoos, while ‘It’s In’ is all waves of keys and jazz cymbals with little stabs of funk bass and intercuts of taking off planes. The unfamiliar end result is hypnotic, a weird marmite-and-cheese mixture that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Strangest of all is ‘All of the Time’, a weird combination of the album’s internal weird combinations. Lounge music, almost Richard Cheese-like vocals ooze over minimal glitch and a robotic choir. The whole ludicrous affair is topped off with some funky slap bass. It sounds like something that the Star Wars Cantina band would play.

To close, Haig offers us two lengthy instrumental pieces that once again manage to both contrast with, and yet entirely compliment, everything that has come before them. The slow, dubby ‘Torn’ is like a lunar take on ‘The Pills Can’t Help You Now’, while ‘Pack’ collects yawing, seasick synths and micro-percussion to forge interstellar trip-hop.

Find your Air Jordans, kick back, and trip out to these odd and utterly original space jams.