British alternative titans the Orielles‘ new double-album, Tableau, is one of those invigorating works of art in which the process of its creation becomes its underlying theme. “On a musical level, the record felt to me to have a massive theme of breaking out of old patterns,” says guitarist Henry Carlyle-Wade. “I think [Tableau] echoed the sentiment of us changing processes, finding new sounds.”
Clocking in at 108 minutes, Tableau expands the band’s danceable indie-rock sound through experiments with improvisation, graphic notation, tape loops, tasteful dashes of Auto-Tune, and guidance from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. “The lyrics are for the most part about creativity and process and abandoning structure and stuff like that, just through different guises, through different artistic forms,” says drummer Sidonie Hand-Halford.
It’s no surprise, then, that Tableau is the first Orielles record to feature a track like the nearly eight-minute-long “Beam/s”. The song starts at a slow groove, with bassist and vocalist Esmé Hand-Halford singing softly over a spare guitar/bass/drums palette with delicate flashes of synthesized melody materializing from the right speaker. The tempo accelerates with the introduction of a string section. Hand-Halford’s vocals taper from rich reverberant textures at the forefront to sharing palette space with the synthesizers, which rise in stereophonic glee alongside crescendoing strings.
Space opens toward the end of the track for Auto-Tuned vocals, the voice mutating from a guttural demon drawl to a chipmunk doused in fluorescent aural grease. Guitars and strings fade, revealing spare percussive funk and plinky synths that squelch their way to the finish, terminating in an eight-bit cannonade. “Beam/s” ends, fittingly enough, with what sounds like the Galaga tractor beam. “I remember playing the first 20 seconds of ‘Beam/s’,” says Carlyle-Wade, “and then playing the last 20 seconds of ‘Beam/s’ and being like, ‘How is that the same song?'”
“Beam/s” is Tableau in microcosm. The album’s exploratory nature stretches to a literary reading with reverse strumming accompaniment (“Stones”), some fuzz-besotted garage-rock gloom (“To Offer, To Erase”), dissonant four-to-the-floor Auto-Tune pop evolved from a jangly indie-rock jam (“Airtight”), a classical string interlude (“By Its Light”), and an ambient lullaby submerged in a tidepool of vocal reverb (“Some Day Later”). “Drawn and Defined” has a hint of cowpoke in its bassline, but the percussion, which plods at the pace of a weary mule, is constructed from clicks and blips usually reserved for IDM, while its synth melody harkens back to early ’90s house music.
“The Improvisation 001” is just disjointed enough to suggest a sort of reigned-in free jazz descendant, with melodies breaking over the percussion in discrete shards that listeners are left to cohere into notions of harmony. The song is one of the clearest examples of how the Orielles have taken methods from film and translated them into their music. In March of 2021, the band released their debut art film, La Vita Olistica. According to Heavenly Records, the film is “an extension of their second album’s core themes of space … adding chapters [of] time and place for a more in-depth phenomenological exploration.”
“One of our favorites parts of film that we realized with making La Vita Olistica,” says Hand-Halford, “was the editing component and how much creativity can come from placing two images side by side, one image before the next. We took that attitude to the music …. We were stepping back like we were editors of a film and placing textures above each other and creating this montage of sound.”
“When we were writing,” says Carlyle-Wade, “and especially when the three of us were playing in the room and feeling the narrative [of the album] and thinking about where it was going from take to take, it’s really hard not to see similarities between that and how films are structured.”
“For ‘Beam/s’ we ended up drawing a storyline. That helped with the scoring of the arpeggio synth throughout. You could relate the narrative, the peaks and troughs of the song, to the way a film is structured. Some songs go on one path and then take a left turn, never to return to what they were before, and some songs are full of motifs and repetitions, and there’s a lot of building on repetition and variation. That can be said for film or music.”
“Maturation” can be a dirty word in music criticism, with its implication that a band has forgotten how to have fun, settling instead for more complex but inherently staid soundscapes. Like all good bands that refuse to regress into a generic version of themselves, The Orielles have matured. That’s not meant to suggest that a song like “The Improvisation 001”, which might be more appropriately termed a composition, is staid.
Au contraire, its phantasmagoric effect is satisfying if the listener is willing to still their mind and focus on subtleties. The song brims with tone color and formalist percussion techniques. It’s possibly the most creative track The Orielles have recorded to date. Whether it’s considered too digressive or oblique by certain fans will depend on a listener’s taste, yes, but also their expectations.
More standard rock numbers like “The Instrument” and “The Room” wouldn’t sound out of place on the band’s previous albums, though both slot naturally into the flow of Tableau. “The Room” is one of the peppiest songs this band has recorded in a relatively short career that, up to this point, has been grounded by peppy songs.
Maturation in its most negative pop-music connotation suggests a band can’t do what they once did best and end up with the same results. In that case, The Orielles haven’t matured their sound but expanded it. They’re as good as they’ve ever been at writing songs like “The Room”, but now they can do more.
The members attribute their creative burst on Tableau to a deliberate shift in their approach to making music. The previous albums were created through a more traditional rock-band approach: crafting songs over time and going into the studio with a batch of already polished demos. This time around, they went into the studio without tightly honed tracks. Instead, they embraced improvisation and experimentation.
One notable example: producer Joel Anthony Patchett blindfolded the band and directed each member to pick up and use an instrument they didn’t ordinarily play. The resulting track was “Transmission”.
The band also used Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, a set of cards designed to help artists break out from creative slumps, as guides to enhance each member’s part. “We picked a card before each take to help us and inform us when we were focusing on our specific parts of the songs,” says Carlyle-Wade. “We gave Joel, our producer, one as well.”
“We used them less so to aid the writing and more to aid the performance style,” notes Hand-Halford. “[The cards] were obviously meant for combating writer’s block or something like that, but at that point the writing was already kind of done, or an idea was already there. It was more about the way in which we interpreted the cards to put through in our performances.”
Tableau is a record that’s constantly shaking up the Orielles’ sound. For example, “Honfleur Remembered” could be reworked as a radio hit if approached in a more conventional rock band format, with the sound cranked just below the red and the palette divvied more evenly between the three members, each playing their primary instruments, then adding small flourishes to round out the track.
Instead, the song is built from resounding piano chords, percussion split between tempered analog drumming and electronic snaps and pops, and gentle vocals cut up à la IDM. There are myriad ways to record a song like this. The Orielles chose one of the more interesting approaches, using a gentle palette that allows tasty sonic details to flourish.
“There were a couple of moments where we had this mental battle between doing something and becoming quite tired of it or repeating ourselves and then having breakthroughs by not bringing anything from the past into the present,” says Carlyle-Wade. “We ended up realizing we were subconsciously replicating things we’d already done. There were many moments like that, where we had to really focus on the present and flowing through it rather than thinking of what worked well before. In that sense, we kept trying to not do anything we’d done before.”
Because of the sonic variety both within and between songs, Tableau is one of those records that’s easy to imagine being remade and remixed in myriad ways. No one song sounds definitive. The album is essentially an embodiment of Susan Sontag’s observation that “the notion of a style-less, transparent art is one of the most tenacious fantasies of modern culture.”
Having read about the band’s recording process, someone going into the album might expect an inconsistent listen. On the contrary, Tableau may be The Orielles’ most cohesive album to date. “Approaching [the recording of Tableau], we had rough ideas, but nothing too sort of carved out,” beams Hand-Halford.
“This made the final product definitely feel more like an entire thing, in a way. We limited ourselves to just writing these songs in the times alotted in the studio, and then equally the lyrics came afterwards or were written in the space of one month. I think in the past it’s been a bit like you’ve got a collection of songs, but does it feel like an entire cohesive album?”
“We had, as any artist does, critiques of the catalog,” says Carlyle-Wade, “and we saw this [recording] process as a way of creating something closer to what our goal was with this one. Having it as an entire body of work, it’s a lot easier to achieve when it’s all created within a shorter time span.”
The Orielles have been discussed for years by music critics and fans in a curatorial fashion. Reviews of their 2018 debut, Silver Dollar Moment, often referenced the Scottish post-punk band Orange Juice. A write-up in Clash opened with the word “nostalgic.” Disco Volador garnered comparisons to A Certain Ratio and Stereolab, and yours truly dubbed the album “a thrift shop of sounds.” One review in Vinyl Chapters goes hogwild with the influences, listing, within a single paragraph, Orange Juice, Chic, Saint Etienne, Danny Krivit, A Certain Ratio, ESG, The Mighty Boosh’s “Future Sailors,” and Stereolab’s Dots and Loops.
The band is aware of the namedropping and genre-tagging their music seems to encourage in certain listeners. “I don’t think we’ve ever been a nostalgic sounding band, but that’s how a lot of people choose to enjoy music these days,” says Hand-Halford.
“Even on our new tracks from the new album we got comments saying, ‘Sounds like Saint Etienne’ and stuff. We’re on the same label that they were, and we’ve got women in the band. I think a lot of the time these interpretations feel quite shallow, but people do really love this sense of nostalgia. I think we’ve hopefully abandoned it a little bit more with this new record.”
“We became hyper aware of British press in particular just rehashing the first like three interviews you do about a record,” says Carlyle-Wade. “Things you said then carry on for years, and you’re like, ‘Well, that doesn’t reflect us in any way.'”
From this perspective, Tableau can be understood as a response to the band’s perception as a sort of polychromatic melting pot for decades of indie-rock influences. For someone who likes placing records in the context of a band’s relationship to its audience and the indie-rock landscape in general, that would seem like an easy conclusion to draw.
But Tableau feels more personal than that. When considered in its entirety and consumed with an ear toward subtle sonic detail, the album reveals itself not as a rejoinder but as an excursion. This is the sound of a band having a blast. This is the sound of a band feeling out their chops past whatever boundaries haven’t yet been explored. This is the sound of a band unconcerned with perception, the sound of a band lost in their music of the moment.
“I wouldn’t say we’re pushing back,” notes Carlyle-Wade. “We’re just adding to it.”