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White Noise: Balam Acab – Wander / Wonder

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Balam Acab – Wander / Wonder

Label: Tri Angle

I've been waiting for this album to come out for nearly a year, and as we moved into 2011 it was easily top of my most anticipated LPs; so I was a little on edge on first listening to Alec Koone's debut album. Turns out I needn't have feared, as this is without a doubt one of the most elegant and brilliant electronic releases in recent years.

Koone's previous release, See Birds, came out on Tri-angle records when witch house was the most hyped thing on the planet, and suffered slightly from being incorporated in the genre. Many of the other 'drag' artists had none of his subtly or elegance of composition, but thankfully the EP continued to gather interest months after release and almost broke free from the restrictive labelling, but with the brilliantly titled Wander / Wonder Koone has shown that he is in a league of his own.

The thing is, Koone has hit on a winning formula. In his gorgeous but brief EP See Birds we heard synth melodies and ambient washes build subtly only to be pummelled by dense bass and electronic effects akin to bubbles rising through water. This tended to be all topped off midway through by superbly manipulated vocals that suited each track to a tee. Here all the ingredients are the same but the whole is pulled off with an unexpected finesse and elegance, resulting in an assured and deeply beautiful album that rewards listen after listen and is without a doubt my personal pick for album of the year so far.

Water is clearly the theme of the day here. Besides the actual water samples littering the tracks, the voices and melodies sound submerged, only occasionally bursting for a few glorious seconds to the surface before returning into the depths. The aquatic theme is also fitting in terms of sequencing, in that while they can be picked apart as singles, the tracks also flow together wonderfully. Koone stated in an interview that he wanted it to be a more open-ended listening experience, and by all means he has succeeded. This lends the LP a free-flowing quality so it can be listened to as a whole or in whatever order you want. The other reason this is so important is because his sound mutates so organically, which is especially notable within the field of electronic music where the human aspect can so easily be removed. These tracks blend the synthetic sounds with a strong emotive pull seamlessly to ensure the listener is never too alienated nor too comfortable, resulting in a listen that is both beautiful and profound.

It feels to me almost as if Koone is one of the few taking electronic music in a new direction. While M83 achieves emotional punch through melodramatic teen-angst synths, Acab's labelmates on Tri-Angle trade in dramatic spookiness and the UK's freshest artists are rehashing the past in more and more innovative ways (not that any of these are bad things), Koone's compositions evoke an emotion that is both curious and ineffable, as interpretative as they are powerful. The closest comparison would be electro/acoustic crossover artists like Shlohmo and Shigeto, but all the more power to Koone for achieving these effects while keeping every sound firmly in the electronic domain.

I've been talking about the LP generally quite a bit because it's difficult to pick out and comment on favourite tracks; there's so much to say about all of them. That's not to say these songs are hard-going, part of Koone's brilliance is that his songs are so welcoming in their dreamy ambience, ghostly voices and on-point beats that it could take a few spins to realise how much depth there is to his composition. If you do seek out intricacy in these tracks, there's a wealth of detail to be unearthed. Welcome sets the scene, building a tense bubbling noise with respirator effects to a fever pitch before an intensely reverbed beat clatters across the soundscape (literally from left to right). After this we hear those vocals that are so uniquely Koone's own: disconnected but moving, situated somewhere between a ghostly choir, ethereal children and the incongruous operatic tones from old records. The effect is far from limited; although there is a unity in their overall sound, the voices range from hopeful to melancholy, strengthening to downright threatening. It's also worth mentioning that in an electronic climate where artists are chopping vocals so finely (see Mount Kimbie, Pariah etc.), Koone's choice to leave them as comprehensible fragments is refreshing and lends the tracks a greater sense of structure.

The next three tracks tie together magnificently; Apart comes to life with real strength, leading into the shimmery Motion which combines a deep bass with pretty strings and a perfectly timed clacking chime. After this Expect is similarly lush and impressive, with a different structure as the slow melody and twin vocal layers (the regular ghost voices combined with angelic harmonies over the bassline) compete with the mutable bass which builds in pace to a threatening speed, made all the tenser by those seesawing strings. Koone's music works so well because of its contrast; the undeniably pretty (in the best sense of the word) is always undercut by a melancholic longing, just as the light melodies are combined with that deep bass.

Oh, Why is definitely a standout (if I was forced to pick one), building with sublime innocence to a subtle and soaring crescendo, made especially superb by the dueling of that continuous high-pitched wail with those bubbling synths towards the end. In the final couple of tracks the water level significantly rises (literally, you'll hear it). The brilliant ambient stretches that precede each song proper are extended here, and as the drops in each track wash over the listener like another crashing wave in an endless sea, here those waves are spaced further apart and all the more powerful for it. Await is fantastically understated and intensely sorrowful whilst dark and redemptive closer Fragile Hope builds over a lengthy yet subtly precise intro to an unshowy but perfectly pitched finale. The last track also has one of the most stunningly nuanced beats I've ever heard, a fragile juddering undermining its own force, and the track leaves the listener with feelings of uncertainty and the most curious positivity, but more than anything the desire to hear the tracks all over again.

There are a couple of criticisms that could be levelled at this album. Firstly, I've heard people describe Balam Acab's sound as 'samey'. My response to that would be to give the songs more time and allow the detail to reveal itself, because each of these compositions are wonderfully unique while at the same time unified by their overall sound. And although I referenced a 'formula' earlier, the album is more a profound exploration of a particular sound than similar rehashings of a winning structure. The other is that the collection of tracks is too short, and it's certainly true that 37 minutes is on the short side for an LP. However I've already stated the album lends itself magnificently to repeated plays, even working brilliantly when set on a loop, there is so much here to discover. Furthermore, the short runtime feels appropriate in an album of such elegance and concision where so much is said over and over again with less, and this is especially laudable in a climate where tracks are all too often stretched to bloating point by self-indulgent instrumental sequences.

I keep using the word 'curious' to describe the emotive effect of this LP, and it's purely down to my own ineloquence that I can't quite put my finger on what feels different about the way it moves the listener. All the feelings here are submerged and blurred, as if by painting emotions with the broadest brushstrokes Koone is masterfully making them intricately and personally applicable to anyone who chooses to listen in. However it makes you feel, the album is endlessly beautiful, fantastically detailed and masterfully subtle. Although the LP doesn't have the high-octane pull of some of the work of his contemporaries, Koone takes the quiet road to aim at something beyond the simple 'Oh shit, this sounds good' reaction, and has diligently crafted a superb album which, if you let it, will worm its way past your brain into your heart and stay there.

This won't be a 10/10 album for every listener, but it is for me. I'm not giving the score because it's the best LP ever recorded but because I feel its as good as it possibly could be. The emotions are treated with a tender abstraction that only electronic music allows, and I'd be surprised if there were many fans of the genre who didn't recognise the unquantifiable innate beauty of these songs. As a piece of art it makes you feel and it makes you think, all the while taking the admirable road of understatement. It sounds like nothing else, and could be said to be a quietly bold statement on the possibilities of electronic composition. As a whole it seems to me one of the most unique, intriguing and moving electronic albums of recent times. Get listening.


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At 3 September 2011 at 10:59 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

100 % ??? NO way...

At 3 September 2011 at 18:06 , Anonymous Tom said...

On reading this review this morning, I went out and bought the album! I can't claim to ever having bought an album of this genre, but your review convinced me. Oh Why is hypnotic. Very atmospheric, and lacking in the knowledge of other artists of the same genre, the closest thing I can compare the artist to is James Blake.

At 3 September 2011 at 19:27 , Blogger Tom Faber said...

Cheers man. As for the first guy, I stand by my judgement.


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