Boom Bip: Blue Eyed in the Red Room

Boom Bip
Blue Eyed in the Red Room

One might claim that Bryan Hollon has ascended to fame through a mixture of fortunate timing, mystery, a good deal of bloody mindedness and no small amount of outright strangeness. This is, after all, the musician/producer who crashlanded in the mangled minds of indie hip-hop heads with Circle, an album-length collaboration with Dose One, a man whose singular genius tends towards being so far out there that his lyrics seem to be whispering their way into your subconscious from underneath your earlobes. Being by two bizarre white men, the record failed to percolate into the public (hip-hop) consciousness in any significant way, but received numerous plaudits and still stands as an impressive achievement both intellectually and musically, dwarfing technically supreme but ultimately shallow records like, say, Madvillainy when it comes to pushing the envelope of the artform (and indeed, as some of its more fanatical devotees would claim, the life form).

On the strength of this recording he and Dose got invited to do a Peel Session; their performance resulted in him dubbing them “a modern day Captain Beefheart”. Having made his mark in such shy and retiring fashion in 2001, Hollon lost no time leaving Cincinnati for dust and signing to Lex (arty hip-hop sub-label of mighty IDM tyrants Warp, and already home to such luminaries as Tes and Danger Mouse) and releasing his debut proper, Seed to Sun, in 2002. It spawned signature tune “Roads Must Roll”, which featured in a bank commercial at the time and now adorns, of all things, the Jigga-at-Madison-Square-Garden documentary Fade to Black. A beautiful, wistful track employing circling strings, “Roads Must Roll” was a red herring of simple accessibility: the album wandered all over the map, from almost atonal clockwork rhythmic constructions to blissful but eerie ambience, with track titles like “The Use of Unacceptable Colors in Nature”, home-made instruments, Japanese vocals and a dark Buck 65 collabo thrown in. The only predictable thing about the record was that it also featured Dose One, on the sublimely deranged “Mannequin Hand Trapdoor I Reminder”.

Seed to Sun came out roughly around the time of Four Tet’s Rounds, which in retrospect was the commercially visible vanguard of what people have taken to calling folktronica, viz. music that melds the organic and the electronic and which is usually quite calm and enchanting but is too intricate, and occasionally strange, to get lumped in with “chill out”. What with synthpop working its way back into the indie scene with slow but irresistible success these past few years, the roll call on Hollon’s 2004 compilation of remixes and unreleased tracks, Corymb, proved that the name Boom Bip has lodged itself crampon-like in all the right places: Four Tet, Mogwai, Lali Puna, Clouddead, Boards Of Canada…

2005 rolls around, and Hollon, having upped stakes and moved to Silverlake’s rolling hills, has returned with another unpredictable offering, whose album design (all curves and tactile visual textures, somewhere between Arabic and a cello made by a beachcomber) has once more been handled by the astounding ehquestionmark — someone throw this guy and Artificial Duck Flavour some advertising campaigns, pronto. What strikes one on first listen is a more vigorous, streamlined feel to his composition; even on slower tracks like “Dumbday” or “One Eye Round the Warm Corner”, the tracks definitely seem to be developing from start to finish instead of, as was the case on Seed to Sun, happening in a disjointed fashion and then ending. The music feels, if not simpler — Hollon’s production still revelling in the polishing of intricate detail — then more pronounced, stronger, more alive. Chief amongst the causes of this change in style has to be Hollon’s decision to abandon loops and samples and play everything (well, 98%, apparently) live. What emerges is much rockier in feel, though it retains an emphasis on mood and atmospherics as well as tracks based around circular, slowly-evolving motifs: the motorik of Krautrock pushing its way to the fore through layers of ambient gauze and smart-yet-playful electronic manipulation.

There is very little in the way of recognisable hip-hop on the record, barring perhaps “The Move”, and no MCs. Indeed, the only guests gracing the LP are Gruff Rhys (of the Super Furry Animals) and Nina Nastasia; the latter singing the heart-stoppingly gorgeous “The Matter (Of Our Discussion)” over a shimmering backdrop of autoharps, strings and guitars (it should be pointed out at this point that Hollon is a sickeningly talented omni-instrumentalist as well as a splendid producer). “I don’t believe in the power of love/ I don’t believe in the wisdom of stone/ I don’t believe in a God or the mind/ But I’m not alone…” she sings, making despair sound as sweet as hope. This theme of, as it were, disbelieving conviction is also present on “Do’s And Don’ts”, where Gruff gets transmuted into a sorrowful Welsh choir chanting “thou shall not believe/thou shall not be led” on the chorus before lurching through a miserable litany of life’s supposed choices during the verse. About two thirds of the way through the track everything fades into an ironic percussion theme, before dropping off into scribbly nigh-silence for a few moments, then the bass snakes back in at high speed and the whole thing lifts off into a smoothly building wig-out that’s fast, funky and fun. The bedroom sound architect has learned how to dance.

Following this is the equally groovy “Girl Toy”, which vibrates along on rising air currents of circling Asian melodies. Pretty and exceedingly perky, you can’t see Hollon recording this with anything less than a beaming smile. His interests in the dark, menacing and dissonant are still clearly with him though, as the punishing rush of “Aplomb” and the creepy intermittent drones of “Eyelashings” show. One gets the impression that, now that he’s beginning to really enjoy himself in the studio and channel his emotion with more musical force, future recordings may well make him as renowned for terrifying, ghastly noise as for terrific, gorgeous silence.

Boom Bip, then: a simple, retro name for a defiantly complicated artist bravely setting sail into the ether of a future beyond genre. Lucky? Definitely. Mysterious? Certainly. Bloody-minded and strange, too, without a doubt. Overwhelmingly though, a humble, interesting and exceedingly talented individual who’s made an intelligent, stimulating, sensitive, bravely confused little album unlike anything else you’ll hear until… well, his next one. Hitch a ride to wherever the heck he’s going right now though, would be my advice — the view’s already damn fine.

RATING 8 / 10