self released 2011, DD album, 42m 42s
$name your price
It has become something of a cliché to describe a vocalist as ‘using their voice like an instrument’. It’s usually intended as a compliment, but it’s a pretty much empty statement, or even a self-contradictory one. After all, in music, whatever is used to produce sound is an instrument, and we don’t gain much by being told so; the suggestion is usually implicit that, even though the vocalist is ‘just’ a singer, they do some things that are characteristic of a ‘real’ musician, as though singing was somehow too easy to count. This sense of vocal ease derives from the relative lack of physical mediation between intention and utterance, but it does not in fact require any less technique to express a musical meaning vocally than via the use of an external instrument. Furthermore, the sense that a voice is being ‘used like an instrument’ is usually associated with an attribution to said voice of some enhanced physicality, betokened by its resemblance to the timbre of another instrument: this is pretty daft, as the bodily locus of musical experience is never so immanent as in a vocal performance.
There are occasions when the cliché is justified however, times when the voice is exploited in a way that bears analogy to the usual role of another instrument in the musical practice in hand. Rose Kemp finds that place on Golden Shroud, having approached it over the course of her preceding releases, and throws her voice into the arrangements with a filthy, raucous abandon normally reserved for the electric guitar. APORIA: IN THESE §TREETS is another appropriate place to use the simile, although it’s not just the vocalist who makes such use of her instrument, as her producer-collaborator also employs it as a sampler instrument of rare limpidity and crystalline physicality.
::M∆DE:IN:HEIGHTS:: is a collaboration between Sabzi, a producer whose work can also be heard here, and a vocalist identified to me only as Kelsey. The album consists essentially of a double EP, with six vocal tracks followed by instrumental versions of five of them. Two of these instrumental tracks include vocals, employed in sequenced form as described above. Whether it is intended to be listened to straight through, or as a vocal release with a ‘bonus disc’, is unclear: I’ve been doing the former, and finding that a satisfying way to listen, but the ambiguity is clearly part of the release’s meaning as a complete work.
The sound of APORIA: IN THESE §TREETS is an effective marriage between gently funky r’n’b beats (and other stylistic elements), and the spaced out synths and pianos of (to pick an example more or less at random) ambient house. There’s always a sturdy backbone of groove, but the textural superstructure and vocal performance references (intentionally or not) such widely separated touchstones as Suzanne Vega (on ‘Viices’), Kate Bush (on ‘Amaranthine’), Laurie Anderson (throughout, but particularly on ‘Chatoyant (Beauty Bass)’)and A-Ha (whose ‘The Sun Always Shines On T.V.’ is echoed strongly in ‘Holla Mears’, most clearly in the instrumental cut). The production values are disciplined ones, focussing on a particular palette of timbres and exploiting them in an impressively creative variety of ways, while the vocal betrays its physicality in the nuanced, breathy funk of its grain, never using dirt or histrionics to assure us of the body at its source.
This is music that presents itself with a clearly stated artistic intent. It is full of ambiguity, but it is clear from the first note that it is meant to convey meaning and to provoke thought. There is much more to these sounds than the self-confirming truisms and artificially erotic physical petition of mainstream pop music, but there is, nevertheless, a fundamental sensibility to the work that refuses to compromise on accessibility. While some potential listeners may not find the tunes sufficiently sugared to scratch their addicts’ itches, there will be none that are repelled by the music’s surface tenor (unless their minds are closed to anything that sounds like pop).
The physicality evoked by this music is a far subtler one than the undifferentiated plastic carnality of the mainstream, and for me, as in ‘Viices’ declaration that ‘we move fast and slow’, a far sexier one. Only on ‘Holla Mears’ does ::M∆DE:IN:HEIGHTS::’ populist instinct exceed the capacity of their musical materials to enclose it: here the saccharine timbre of Autotune is locked too hermetically into the easy confection of the melodic hook, and the result is too sweet for any real flavour to prevail. Elsewhere the listening experience is the shimmer of sunlight on gently rippling water, the buffered beauty of a hot day spent smoking weed, and the mellifluous flow of time passing, when we have as much of it as we need.