If Debussy and Phil Collins fell in love, Bayonne would be their baby. (That's a good thing.)
Primitives opens onto a roughly sketched landscape of ambient noise and meandering synthesizers before the lines are drawn in and darkened with percussive guitars. It’s the debut album of Roger Sellers, better known by his stage name, Bayonne, and it’s a phenomenally crafted first statement.
Sellers describes himself as a minimal composer, and while Primitives does emphasize moments of spare, lonely sound, it also offers wide swaths of impressionistic, textural richness. The latest single, “Appeals”, calls Debussy to mind more than Steve Reich, with a skittering piano figure that veers just to the left of tonal. Echoing bells throughout the track define its sonic world, so that even though the compositional style may be minimalist, the aural experience is anything but sparse. Primitives plays like one continuous piece of music, putting forward eight separate but connected ideas. Sellers’ vocals and lyrics are often muffled by the music, but when they shine through they do so with a Sufjan Stevens-esque sincerity.
A lot of the record sets off Sufjan bells, actually. It’s ambitious and electronic but still maintains the feel of chamber music, of intimacy. It’s easy to slip into this world and get lost.
Citing his own influences, Roger Sellers puts Phil Collins at the top of the list, and I can see why. There’s no “Easy Lover” allegory on Primitives by any means, but the way percussion is used and the sounds achieved on the drums here are definitely a tip of the hat not only to the Padgham drum sound, which came to fruition on Collins’ Face Value, but to Collins’ earlier work with prog rock giants Genesis. A sensitive mood comes through the drums, and a likelihood that the album title is a reference largely to the soundscape of the drums. There's something both humanistic and animalistic about the way percussion is approached on Primitives that goes a long way to establishing cohesion between these pieces of music. Everything coalesces in the last moments of the closing track, “Omar”, which elevates brutal, driving drums to the foreground. Listening to the percussion alone on this record reveals a journey from the tentative handclaps of “Intro” to the in-your-face beating that cauterizes “Omar”. It’s a feat of sequencing as much as anything else.
If there’s one detractor from Primitives, it’s a certain indecisiveness in direction. These pieces of music sometimes feel too connected, as though they would be better thought of as one statement than eight. It’s a singles world, though, and while “Appeals” and its predecessor “Spectrolite” hold up well enough on their own, their impact is significantly lessened without the context of the album. The dynamics at play here overreach the limits of their tracks, and it’s the prog rock nerd in me that’s rooting for the next record to go full on Tales From Topographic Oceans, two continuous hours of unintelligible and variously pretty words and sounds.
Without a doubt, this is the strongest debut album that’s passed through my hands in a while. There’s smart composition without sacrificing accessibility, and ambition without sacrificing cohesion. I’m interested to see how these songs translate to a live context. Roger Sellers is not a DJ; in fact, he confesses to knowing less about DJing than the average layman, so it seems unlikely these parts will be programmed. Fortunately, he’s playing a handful of dates this spring in support of the record, so we’ll get the opportunity to find out.