The first album in 15 years from the ambient-house pioneers finds them getting a fresh lease on chill.
Like many acts that broke through during the first big wave of electronica in the early 1990s, Ultramarine will forever be associated with one album. That album is their debut, Every Man and Woman Is a Star.
Released in 1992, that album fit right in with the psychedelic, ethereal "ambient house" or "chill out" music of acts like the Orb, KLF, and Aphex Twin. Ultramarine's Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond were nature-loving would-be hippies who thanked Birkenstock sandals in their liner notes. Every Man and Woman is a Star translated that pastoral ethos into music that was full of breezy, midtempo rhythms and shaded in with traditional instruments like violin and harmonica. The album is often cited as the genesis of what some have called "folktronica".
Interestingly enough, folk and "folktronica" are hot items again, 20 years later. You could argue Avicii's international smash "Wake Me Up" takes the basic blueprint laid down by Ultramarine and their peers and follows it to a natural, uptempo, chart-friendly conclusion.
But Ultramarine themselves have not been idle in the interim. Following the critical success of the debut, they released follow-up United Kingdoms on a major label in 1993. Featuring cult progressive rock icon Robert Wyatt, the album took Cooper's and Hammond's more tie-dye leanings even further. It was a critical and commercial failure. Taking a step back in profile, the duo released two further albums in the 1990s, Bel Air (1995) and A User's Guide (1998). These albums explored more then-trendy sounds like trip-hop and abstract techno.
After a 13-year absence, Cooper and Hammond reconvened Ultramarine and released a couple of EPs in 2011. Now comes This Time Last Year. Cooper and Hammond have finally, after many years and several false starts, produced an album that follows through on the strengths of their debut while also expanding and deepening their musical palate in positive ways. Much of Every Man and Woman is a Star now sounds tinny, stiff, and a bit naïve, results due as much to the technology of the time as to the men employing it. This Time Last Year, however, is rich and layered without sacrificing the careful simplicity that has always been Ultramarine's strength.
"Within Reach" uses simple, sad tremolo guitar chords to great effect. But here, Cooper and Hammond aren't satisfied with the comforting bed of sound. As more abstract synthesizer tones come to the fore, the sense of peaceful contemplation is replaced by one of unease. Closer "Imaginary Letters" comes closest to the sound Ultramarine made their name with. This time it's the synths providing the sad tones, as an arpeggio guitar floats over the top. A pulsating, almost tribal electronic rhythm establishes itself, temporarily putting the mood of the track in question. Soon enough, though, the synths float back in, saturating the rhythm in good vibes. "Imaginary Letters" just might be the most perfect track Ultramarine have released to date.
This Time Last Year explores other permutations of mellow electronica as well. "Technique" and "Even Then", with their clipped electronic handclaps, are almost mathematical in their precision. The latter recalls fellow British electronica pioneers Future Sound of London at their best. "Find My Way" is another highlight, a looped trip-hop bassline and mysterious vocal samples making for an evocative trip. Some listeners might find the jazzy soul of "Eye Contact" forced. "Sidetracked", with minimal hi-hats and dubby panning effects, sounds like it came easily.
A lot has happened in the world of electronic music since Every Man and Woman is a Star made such an impression. But after a long hiatus, with This Time Last Year Ultramarine prove second impressions can be pretty strong, too.