Drowning the self in a sea of sound
‘Swim,’ Fassin said. ‘You know; when your head kind of seems to swim because you suddenly think, “Hey, I’m a human being but I’m years from home and we’re all living in the midst of mad-shit aliens and super-weapons and the whole fucking bizarre insane swirl of history and politics!” That: isn’t it weird?’
—from Iain M. Bank’s “The Algebraist”
In 1998, London producer and songwriter Leila Arab released Like Weather on Rephlex, showcasing a homemade brew of electronic music that used intimacy and a fascination with sound to intense, bewitching and occasionally caustic effect. Her friends and sister (who played violin on Archive’s gorgeous, gothic Londinium) provided vocals for songs about love and loss, interspersed with instrumental mood pieces that were often startlingly pretty. Two years later she would drop a sequel, Like Weather, that had Lucca Santucci (who would go on to sing for London legend Trevor Jackson’s Playgroup project as well as Plaid and Herbert) crooning on the storming “To Win Her Love”.
Now, the reason I pick “To Win Her Love” is that it showcases Leila’s interweaving of analogue and digital sounds into an organic backing for live vocals, as well as being a brilliant example of how deft production can turn a seemingly innocuous set of lyrics on their head. That throbbing, ominous bassline entering behind Lucca’s sappy declarations not only simulates the rush of his emotion; it also wrests all control of the song’s dynamic away from him, rendering his pathetic, terrified state as musical helplessness.
Enter Sohn, a South London producer, singer and songwriter whose ballads serve the warmth of ‘80s production with the polish of modern studios and an icy lashing of contemporary angst. In his work, whether solo or producing and remixing media darlings like Banks, Lana del Rey, Kwabs and Rhye, the pretty and the stark are blended into a sinuous whole, often with tactile percussion and bass that can go from hypnotic and groovy to flat-out overwhelming. His signature sound is at once so polished and so personal that it is hard to think of any producer to have emerged in this millennium who is as fully-formed and aware of the roots of his sound. I’m a bit disappointed that he relocated to Vienna in 2010, but I suppose I wouldn’t want him making things too easy for me, would I? The album certainly doesn’t, and it’s wonderful.
I’ve used the term ballads to describe Sohn’s approach to songwriting because they’re rich in atmosphere and there’s a definite aspect of storytelling to them, but they’re much more like bubbles of memory than conventionally structured, romantic pop songs. They build up layers of arpeggios before fracturing into kaleidoscopic climaxes, maelstroms of rising and diminishing emotion that are as infectious as they are reflective. Often mournful yet rattling with intelligent, nervous energy, their emotional ambivalence only reinforces how purely they seem to make Sohn’s mind manifest; a true form of psychedelia that flows from his neuroses to billow into effervescent catharsis.
Sohn’s voice is as powerful and beautifully showcased by his production talent as this psychological grandiloquence implies. It’s not just that his voice is a gorgeous thing in and of itself, or that his range is impressive and his control is as close to clinical as it can be whilst still giving the impression he’s feeling his way into repeated lines; it’s the way he uses the studio to build multiple takes into the song structure themselves, playing the samples as background arpeggios, scattering murmurs and echoes around the main vocal lines and thus blurring the line between the singer and his music (or his mind and his personality).
The introduction for single “The Wheel” demonstrates this admirably, with its nostalgia-inducing barbershop quartet vamp that he subverts into an electronic shadow of itself before building the track around the resulting, Other-ed ostinato and singing about his own death. On “Ransom notes”, human impermanence is again painted in lush tones as his voice floats through the chorus, reciting “We float on the breeze/we are held to a ransom/we are bones on the reefs/waiting for the waves…” before fading out into the sway of overlapping backing vocals chanting “on the reefs / for the waves” softly. It’s almost unnervingly evocative of the sea.
“Shotgun poetry / Crack the whip again, make me see / Sharpen your knives for me / Infiltrate the mind, the body” are the opening lyrics to first single “Bloodflows” and a good indication of Sohn’s ability to wield words with symbolic weight, even if it’s the first of only two verses the song employs over its 4:21 span – yet, the music is calm, limpid even. “My love, my love, my love don’t love me” echoes the chorus, and if at first this seems like limp surrender, as the stridency of the song builds up and the bass surges in, it suddenly seems less like a regret and more like a command. “Artifice”, another single and the album’s most badass groove, also mines this very modern dichotomy of desire for, and refusal of, the Other. Incidentally, the video for “Artifice” is great at evoking the suspended-in-a-moment-of-dream feeling that many of the hypnogogic concoctions here offer.
Overall, this is an excellent album that, like Burial’s Untrue before it, does an uncanny job of submersing you in the sensorium of someone haunted by nights in modern cities. Despite its variety of rhythms, it is perhaps a little too similar of tone and musical approach to hold up as a strong album rather than as a collection of works by an artist whose music feels fresh yet still dangerously mature and self-assured. As songs the 11 tracks here may not register too strongly, but as compositions they have ensured that Tremors has become a new cornerstone of my personal idiom, joining those of Leila Arab, Iain Banks and Frankie Knuckles, the latter two sadly having lingered in these chambers of the sea too long. Rest in peace.