White Rabbits is a neatly packaged combo deal of drum loops, programming, piano, guitar and a nice side of room-mic’ed atmospherics. Neotropic’s package is successful in what most ambient-genre electronic stuff sets out to do. The album is entirely displacing, sometimes jostling the listener about so that he or she is above the scene, looking down or underneath a glass floor, gawking up into a darkened theater, where a mini-opera is led by a cloaked, grinning Riz Maslen.
It’s not her first record — Riz Maslen’s, that is. She’s Neotropic, originally from Gloucestershire, and originally on the Ninja Tune imprint Ntone. Her time in the studio working with Future Sound of London was enough to scratch her recording itch, and after taking out a loan and buying a studio to record her work, she signed to Ntone and released the first Neotropic 12″ in 1995. That year’s Tumble Weed EP was the first in a line of recordings for Ntone. At the same time, Maslen was recording under another moniker, Small Fish with Spine, on Oxygen Music Works. As old as an idea as it has become to point out that this genre is inundated with male composers, I’m pointing it out again. Maslen is refreshingly in control here, and if it’s not evident in her backstory, it’s more than obvious on the new Neotropic album, her Mush Records debut.
After Maslen tramps through a rainy and busy intersection in the first few seconds of White Rabbits, she and her friends offer dry relief in “New Cross” by way of heavily delayed piano chords over a mid-tempo buzzing drum loop. Bleeps and echoing guitar lines soar overhead, never outside of the still-present street ambience. Maslen’s glockenspiel is ever-comforting, as things get more complicated toward the end of this piece, when more ideas are added before the train station voiceover. The interim is hauntingly real: conversation is entering and trailing off in both headphone speakers while the humdrum of the train schedule is off to the side, but is less than audible. This is Neotropic’s extension into multi-media: her expertise in that area has been on display at her live outings, and is no less evident here. “Magpies” is even more cinematic, a threatening venture in its violin, treated vocals, and drums that never fully arrive, just kinda leering for a bit and heading back down the alley. She doesn’t let up with “Doity Round-a-Heights”, where the same creepy picture is taken with different color. Maybe Maslen is using static chirps, backward synths, and creaks to turn heads toward what’s rumored to be the most haunted of places in England, her hometown of Gloucestershire? Whatever the sinister motive, her undead compositions are alive and well on White Rabbits.
Neotropic’s Mush debut is considerably more inventive than the Jefferson Airplane song of the same name. At their radio-charted peak, Grace Slick and company were watered-down anyway: reverb vocals and extended guitar solos do not a psychedelic record make. As far as daring psychedelia goes, Neotropic doesn’t find a safe corner on this effort and every piece dips into a different cookie jar. Maslen allows for various musical influences to be a part of her expansive quilt of churning atmospherics, while forever suggesting that an album is not being played, rather swallowed whole and slowly, reluctantly digested.