Has Emika, the Native Instruments sound designer and Ninja Tune stalwart, lived up to the hype and the promise shown on her experimental, laptop-driven self-titled debut, a work that joined the dots between hypnotic German techno and the sub-heavy styling of London’s underground dubstep scene?
With her self-titled debut receiving massive plaudits worldwide -- with critics describing her genre-bending mashup of underground pop, techno, and dubstep as “unique and exciting” and “varied and impressive”-- Emika singled herself out as one to watch in the future. With support garnered from electronic luminaries such as Thom Yorke, on top of the tag of the “female James Blake” being bestowed upon her by Allmusic reviewer John O’Brien, great expectation has been lumped on to her second album, DVA. But has the Native Instruments sound designer lived up to the hype and the promise shown on the experimental, laptop-driven debut, a work that joined the dots between hypnotic German techno and the sub-heavy styling of London’s underground dubstep scene?
The answer is probably not, but not for reason you might be expecting if you've read other reviews of this record. The thing for me that sets this apart from her debut (not in terms of quality) is the fact that she has shunned any thought of copying the style that, arguably, put her on the music map and has instead focused on building upon the foundations she first laid on her debut --- where her wistful lyrics drifted in and out of focus almost working as coloring for her twitchy electronic soundscapes -- by bringing her voice more to the fore and toning her sonic experimentations down in favor of a more retro 1980s sound palette that at points reminds me of the soundtrack to the film Drive, albeit with far more dread and darkness weaved into its DNA. All of this should be a good thing, if it is pulled off well, as, in my opinion, it shows that the singer-songwriter-producer is not tied down or hampered by certain memes or expectations, making her almost, in film parlance, an auteur -- as, despite the change in direction she has undertaken, the album definitely contains some of the more prominent sonic anchor points that mark it out wholeheartedly as an Emika production.
As a result, it becomes more and more difficult to compare the albums side by side, as they are very different beasts. The LP kicks off with a dark, pulsating string scoring by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on "Hush Interlude", which, under any other circumstances, would generally imply we, the listeners, would be taken on a ride into the heart of darkness, so emotive the track is. However, as already intimated, the album instead launches into an almost retro assault of '80s movie-inspired soundtracking and design.
"Young Mind", using a simple, analog-edged bassline, complimented by stirring strings, old school drums,well-articulated yet subdued vocals, and a cheap, almost MIDI horn line, kicks the LP off proper, giving the listener a taste of what is to come. "She Beats" continues where "Young Minds" left off, but taking the themes in the preceding track to a darker place by exploring more experimental sounds and darker lyrical content.
"Sing to Me" takes a more sub-heavy approach to songwriting, utilizing deep and dark bass swells, harmonic pads, and a rolling piano melody that complements the shuffling tom-peppered drum tracks, in the process creating a tune that is a bit reminiscent of some of the work House Of Black Lanterns employed on his Houndstooth debut.
"Dem Works" reintroduces the strings of the Prague Philharmonic, underpinning a pining vocal track which would have served nicely to introduce some new ideas into the latter half of the album. However, we are treated to much of the same when proceeding track "Primary Colours" comes in.
As an album the whole thing works, as it is extremely cogent in both its sound design and vibe -- and considering that she has approached this album in a different way both compositionally and stylistically from her previous work, which is no mean feat.
On the flip side, however, I think that these positives are also the album's major failings. Everything from the synth work to the drum tracks sound the same, and this, on top of the fact that Emika's vocal delivery rarely changes, makes the album slightly (but only slightly) disappointing. Why this is I have no idea. Maybe she is not 100% confident with her newfound underground pop stylings yet and has as a result held back on her delivery (I’m thinking this, as at points the vocals -- which dominate the LP -- sometimes become so mired in effects that they get buried within the mix and become almost unintelligible, which is obviously not a good sign if the singing is the main element that drives the album along) or perhaps she has been pushed into a more accessible direction that she has not yet completely come to terms with yet.
That being said, I see this record as a transitional point in her career and one that unfortunately alienates her from the scenes she has come from. She no longer possesses either the mesmerizing techno or the bass mastery she has become associated with, regrettably leaving her sitting in a kind of sonic purgatory. As you would expect, however, her sound design and mixing skills are second to none and she has created some truly enthralling chord progressions and harmonies, leaving me to think she should probably have played to her strengths a bit more on this offering and left the more synth-pop-heavy stylings to her next album -- once she has truly mastered her vocal delivery a variation a bit more.