Simian Mobile Disco‘s Murmurations, out May 11, reveals in its first few bars that the British duo has veered in a new, surprising direction. Rather than kicking it off with characteristically textured dance beats, producer-composers James Ford and Jas Shaw open it with the voices of the all-female Deep Throat Choir processed through synthesizers. Serving as melody, harmony, and part of the rhythmic underpinning, the echoing voices dart and shift continually throughout the track, thus providing a harbinger of a fascinating, accessible album of pristine electronica and modern choral music.
Murmurations doesn’t completely abandon the dance music on display in previous Simian Mobile Disco recordings, though the duo had discarded, thankfully, the EDM and pop tropes that date their 2007 debut Attack Delay Sustain Release. Under the voices, the tracks rollick, swing and sway as Ford and Shaw build, disassemble and rebuild platforms that are both logical and deceptively adventurous, and thus kin to what’s on their previous full-length album Welcome to Sideways (2016). If there is precedent of a kind for the hybrid form they explore here – the “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares” collections; Kate Bush’s work with Trio Bulgarka; and Björk on “Medulla” or in concert with Graduale Nobili, for example – Simian Mobile Disco’s subtle, hypnotic relentlessness and the quality of the Deep Throat Choir distinguishes the mutual effort. On Murmurations, the organic and synthetic work hand in hand.
When we spoke by phone in late April – Ford was in London, Shaw in Kent – the duo acknowledged that they had far different perspectives on the project at its earliest stages. Said Shaw, “I really didn’t like the idea. I don’t have a connection to human voices. I don’t like them more than synths.”
But Ford was captivated by Luisa Gerstein and the choir, who he met through a family friend. “Luisa has an unusual sense of harmony and melody,” he said, “and she had written some really strong songs.”
They bonded in the recording studio where the duo challenged the choir to set their voices free and create, as Ford put it, “bizarre flocking, shifting textures”. Many of the captured sounds suggest soaring, swooping birds, hence the album title which refers to birds’ behavior when they fly in flocks. The opening track, “Boids”, shares a name with an artificial life program that simulates such avian activity.
Hearing the raw tracks and grasping the possibilities, Shaw became a convert with the Deep Throat Choir as collaborators, not invited guests. “It wasn’t a case of ‘sing this, and off you go,'” he said. “We didn’t want it to sound like a choir on a techno record. We wanted the choir to be central to it.” Working at Shaw’s studio, the duo found the voices retained their ability to connect on a personal level even when they were altered.
With its rhythmic patterns and top-line instrumentation, Murmurations is clearly a Simian Mobile Disco album, but as it unfolds, it repeatedly restates that something else is going on here. Its tracks range from entrancing dance music to challenging experimentalism. On “Hey Sister”, bells, shakers, and a kettle drum underpin the voices as they chant the melody and lyrics. The voices ring out in close harmony in “Defender” over complex cymbal patterns. But on “We Go”, the choir is at a distance beneath polyrhythmic industrial sounds and synth strings. The club-worthy “V Formation” finds the voices repeating notes while complex, unyielding percussion dominates.
“A Perfect Swan” pushes the album concept to its furthest edges. Above what seems to be buzzing bees – vocal tones treated synthetically, in fact – Ford and Shaw place the assertive choir’s rising, cascading voices; soon, cadenced beats tip-toe in. The percussive pattern shifts and, after morphing into siren-like sounds, the voices withdraw, and the multiplying beats intensify. It’s an adventurous track that suggests how far Simian Mobile Disco and the Deep Throat Choir could have gone had all concessions to techno been abandoned.
Simian Mobile Disco intended to tour behind Murmurations, but Shaw’s health issues may have made that impossible. He’s been diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, a disease in which abnormal protein fibers can attach and deposit into organs, tissues, nerves and other places in the body, affecting their functions. When we spoke, he said he had chemotherapy the day before and was “doing really well. My levels are almost down to normal.”
“It’s been a shock,” he conceded. “Everyone had been amazing, especially James.”
On April 4, Simian Mobile Disco and the Deep Throat Choir performed the music of Murmurations for an audience at London’s Barbican Hall. Shaw said that in a live setting the voices and electronica came together with a dynamic quality he found both challenging and satisfying.
“When it’s just the two of us,” he said, referring to earlier Simian Mobile Disco shows, “we can read each other. But with the choir, it’s more slippery. The energy and presence of the singers was extraordinary.”
With that, Shaw provided a capsule review not only of the concert, but of Murmurations too. It is an energetic album that marries successfully seemingly disparate musical forms that combine to create extraordinary moments of unexpected vigor and delight.