Jeff McIlwain is back for another downtempo, IDM Lusine record. Sensorimotor is calm, expansive and not demanding. Like background music that slowly fades into the foreground. Like a radio that grows legs and sits down on the chair next to you for a conversation. Think each of these artists in equal measure—Oneohtrix Pt. Never, Tycho, AFX, Air—yes, it encompasses the ground trodden by all of those far-reaching and uber creative artists. Does it reach those same peaks? No, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a solid entry within a creative and compelling catalog.
Opener “Canopy” spreads like a canopy over the listener, but instead of keeping rain out, it lets electronic rain filter through, with repeating arpeggios and fuzzy blankets of synths creeping around the terrain. Simple bells mark the time as it passes. “Ticking Hands” mixes Kid A synths, Aphex Twin stuttering beats, and a heavily filtered vocal performance. Coming off “Canopy”, “Ticking Hands” is striking and well sequenced. The refrain “Time is on our side” works where many electronic lyrics fail, feeling organic to the song, and not read out of some ancient Korg manual. The song drags for about 60 seconds after it runs out of gas, leading to “Slow Motion”.
The synths pattern and repeat like an electronic carpet while we are collectively riding a big wheel made of soft, strong hi-hat hits. “Slow Motion” is a mobile and energetic song. Then we crash and pick up the pieces. “Just a Cloud” is Boards of Canada at two times the speed. But where their tracks remind us of memories, this is a play in the future. The vocals play and pop and sizzle and jump and dive octaves and it’s just a true pleasure to hear. Some might criticize it for being Urban Outfitters core, but if you are non-cynical, you will find your fingers tapping.
“Witness” pulses like a Thom Yorke solo tune, “Chatter” offers breathing room, “Won’t Forget” moves and grooves. Each song bringing with it something from a previous one but also something new. Never quite treading ground we haven’t heard before, but compiling sounds in a fresh way.
That brings up a point disagreed on between critics and fans: how creative does a record need to be to be deemed excellent? The Tallest Man on Earth has almost no creativity but has been deemed excellent by many including myself. In electronic music—Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Flying Lotus are three top tier creative acts, all also critically acclaimed. The Field, though, as a techno artist, has served as a compiler of ideas than a creator of them -– yet he enjoys the same well-deserved critical acclaim as the aforementioned artists.
The difference can seem razor thin, between paying homage and creating. Lusine walks that line to the extent that fans and critics will inevitably be divided. His IDM offers few new ideas, but brings a pinch of pop and shapes sounds in a fresh, compelling way. Like on “Flyway” the synths just click, dancing is inevitable, and its production is superb, layering each tone on top of another until a flying pyramid is complete. “Tropopause” is the freshest track here like someone put a microphone up to a spaceship’s tailpipe. It’s grimy ambient at its grossest, and I love it. The record would have benefited from more genre pushing like “Tropopause”, but its pastiche of tones does give it an IDM Gorillaz feel.
The summit of Sensorimotor is the seven-minute “The Lift”, a driving, rhythmic pseudo-techno, electronic number. Each measure climbs like a ‘90s Moby song, slowly building. The synth line across three to five minutes feels painted and alive, not trapped into the methodical quantization that plagues so many could be great records. There’s a certain tension within Tycho records that matches the arena here. Tycho records feel designed to accompany visuals, the music without color in front of your eyes feels like a soundtrack more than a record. Lusine strikes the same synapses, not that the music is incomplete, more like, a visual artist is required to realize the tonality here fully.
Sensorimotor is an exercise in doing many things well but nothing truly great. If McIlwain focuses his efforts, he could create one of the great electronic records of the year. This, however, is not it.