Album Review: SBTRKT – ‘Transitions’

Image

The man in the tribal mask has been keeping quiet. Three years on from Aaron Jerome’s excellent debut, and he has been entirely leaving us hanging. Fortunately though, SBTRKT is back with this little hors d’oeuvre, a timely amuse-oreille to tide us over until his next LP drops. A six track EP, Transitions is closer to Jerome’s earlier pre-Sampha and Jessie Ware work, a shimmering collection of atmospheric instrumentals and dense, complex productions that really allows SBTRKT to take centre stage and tantalise listeners with his sound’s latest developments.

On a purely titular level, it seems initially to be quite a defensive album. A transition, rather than a final product, track names including ‘Resolute’, ‘Stifle’ and ‘Hold The Line’ don’t conjure the most progressive connotations. There is however, no doubt that Transitions marks a significant step forward for SBTRKT, bringing a new lean, sparse element to his existing style. Certainly it’s less overtly commercial than SBTRKT, but it packs no less punch. There’s a certain restrained strength – a definite sense of power in reserve combined with metronomic, looping motifs – that calls to mind the xx’s debut.

Opener ‘Gamelana’ combines a cicadas beat with an uneasy, wet-trainer, metal-on-metal squeak as a constant, matte synth chimes out an innocuous, deceptively catchy riff. There’s an oscillating, uneven edge to it, slightly sinister and unstable – the vague whiff of a bad trip; electronic swings and roundabouts, fear and loathing in the playpark! Elsewhere, the synth arpeggios continue in a  fresher, more daytime-friendly fashion with ‘Resolute’, which brings a faint 8-bit vibe to a disco beat, and ‘Stifle’, a trilling, liquid slice of wake-up ambience laced with a choppy, clapping beat and slivers of wonky synth. Perhaps most different of all is the colossal ‘Highs + Lows’, which whacks slabs of shuddering bass over a spare change-jangling beat. Undisguised dancefloor fuel, it manages to be psychopathically dark whilst irresistibly danceable – forget feeling the bass in your chest, stand close to the stacks for this and your eyelids will vibrate.

Transitions may be styled as an EP, but it’s only being released in hard copy as three distinct 12”s. Digitally, the tracks sync up with an eye-watering, interactive website that calls to mind those “visual high” videos that were so utterly ineffective. Better still, the vinyl sleeves and inners interlink to create the same trippy Moiré effect: far out! It’s a cool package in an industry increasingly flooded with quirky formats and marketing tricks, but then, SBTRKT has always excelled at visual accompaniments.

All told, it’s a revealing glimpse into the machinations behind the mask – and there’s no doubt that SBTRKT is moving into gripping new territory. I’m fascinated to see what Transitions turns out to be a stepping stone towards – bring on the full length!

Advertisements

Album Review: Werkha – ‘Beacons EP’

Image

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.

Album Review: Zomby – ‘With Love’

Image

 

Back for the first time since 2011, Zomby is far from finished with the eerie, introverted soundscapes that defined his acclaimed second album, Dedication. His new record, a sprawling, utterly absorbing double album, takes a slow-motion look at a range of core electronic genres and spreads their bass and beats over unrecognisably low tempos, creating a signature sound of pulsing, melodic, urban unease. It’s the feeling of walking round deserted streets at night; savouring your solitude and the beauty of your moonlit surroundings, but being constantly aware of the threats lurking just out of sight.

Sticking to his long-held ‘Fuck Mixing, Let’s Dance’ philosophy, With Love is a far cry from the smooth transitions of many contemporary electronic album; there are no meandering, cross-fading codas to be found here. Bare, slightly jolting, cuts string the album’s 33 tracks, yet their collective unnerving beauty is unbreakable, with the album’s length only adding to its absorbing, whole-world-in-a-record effect.

Broadly, With Love’s two discs divide into Zomby’s moody take on industrial, jungle, and techno on Volume I, with instrumental hip-hop and sparse, hauntingly beautiful post-dubstep cuts dominating Volume II. Initially, the atmosphere slowly builds through disorientating Crystal Castles-style glitch, spacey dub beats and the tension-ratcheting, climbing-rollercoaster of ‘Horrid’ – and so, Zomby’s (distinctly dark) stage is set.

By the time the old-school hip-hop of ‘It’s Time’ rolls around, and an unusually subdued voice insists “It’s time to go fucking mental!”, it’s long been clear that Zomby is no longer interested in indulging in nostalgia or clichéd bass-drops, but is instead crafting something entirely new from recycled pieces of dance music’s history. As the end of the Volume I approaches, he ferociously underlines the point with the tribal drumnbass of ‘VI-XI’, which mashes an unsettling, squawking pulse to an insistent loop of someone yelling, “It’s this one, the original!”. Resembling a nightmarish hallucination set in a bustling market, it’s thoroughly overwhelming.

Volume II is a noticeably calmer affair. Second track ‘Digital Smoke’ has slow, threatening beats trickle over smears of sub-bass –the antithesis of TNGHT’s burbling, day-glo instrumental hip-hop, this is far more industrial and maintains an astonishing introversion. Skipping over what sounds like slowed down Balearic techno (‘Glass Ocean’) and full-on, pitch-shifting paranoia (‘How To Ascend’), the album’s only collaboration arrives in the form of ‘Pyrex Nights’, with producer Last Japan in tow. With buzzing percussion and a gorgeous melody, it could be a classical score but for the squelching, almost air-horning, bass.

The cherry on the already-very-impressive cake though are the stunning, post-dubstep instrumentals strung throughout With Love’s second side. Combining the layered complexity of Pantha du Prince with the melancholic beauty of James Blake’s first album, these delicate miniatures put With Love amongst the best releases of the year.  From the almost Oriental ‘Reflection in Black’, to the evocative sunny pianos tinged by looming-clouds bass of ‘Sunshine in November’, these brilliant interludes show just how effective Zomby’s dance retrospective collages can be.

At a time when many electronic albums sound more like mixed sets than collections of songs, this expansive double album is all the more impressive, with its 33 abruptly separated songs holding the listener captive within Zomby’s edgy world for well over an hour. Take the advice of many a teen goth’s t-shirt and join the dark side; it’s unnervingly beautiful.