Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Recommended music: 'Wander / Wonder' by Balam Acab

One of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year (in my house at least!), Balam Acab's first full-length album for Tri-Angle Records follows on from his acclaimed 'See Birds' EP for the same label late last year. While still recognisably the same artist, Pennsylvanian Alec Koone has clearly developed since then, with stronger production values and more songwriting depth both evident on here.

The album opens with the sound of an ultrasound scan and the beat of a baby's heart - a suitable beginning for the appropriately-titled 'Welcome'. The track turns darker, with ventilated breathing and a scratchy rhythm, before becoming suddenly uplifting towards the end as the chords change and bring relief to the mood, like a shaft of light after a dark raincloud. The mention of rains is apt, as their is a watery feel to some of the tracks, with the sound of rivers and seas playing in the background.

'Aprt' brings some 'trademark' high-pitched sampled vocals over a trip-hop-like beat. Is it witch house? Is it chillwave? Throw your labels away as it's clear that whatever it is, it's the real deal and it defies any genres you might care to pigeonhole it into. 'Motion' continues the fluid feel to the album, flowing nicely from a looping introduction to a more upbeat track that seems to show R'n'B influences and sounds like some of the remixes Star Slinger has been putting out recently (now there's a hook-up I'd like to see - get on the case please Tri-Angle).

'Expect is slightly more down-tempo and melancholic. The vocals may (or may not be) talking about Indian sunsets, and there's definitely a feel of the end of the day about this one. Towards the end a violin appears, and then unexpectedly the chords and vocals build to a peak, with the drum beats kicking in, before it subsides again. Next up is 'Now Time' - more reminiscent of the tracks on 'See Birds' than some of the tracks on here, this is a quietly atmospheric track, with snatches of violins, acoustic guitars and glockenspiels wafting over a scratchy backing track and topped off with more sampled vocals.

The beautifully crafted 'Oh, Why' follows. Starting with a snatch of vocals singing the title, it gradually builds as more tracks are overlaid - vocals, a beat, than a bassline all coming together to create a track tht is made to soundtrack the sun rising over a Mayan temple, or something equally as photogenic. 'Await' matches the sound of water with birdsong and occasional deep pulses to put you in a dream-like state, ready for the arrival of the final track, 'Fragile Hope'. Here the water sounds are in the form of drips that gradually coalesce to form the rhythm. Matching the earlier 'Welcome' there are more breathing noises as the track gradually takes shape. A lowdown drum beat and bass start to underpin the track as more melody and vocals are added, building into the most accomplished track on the record. Before the end these fade out again and we're left with more water and a haunting, fragile vocal line to end the album.

If you buy the album from Rough Trade (and you really should, it's their album of the month) you get a four-track bonus CD featuring some more diverse tracks. 'Heavy Living Things', from Balam Acab's first ever release, starts things off , with what could well be a sampled pneumatic drill providing some of the backing to this darkly melodic, glitchy track, while 'Long' is an eerie, looped track that never really goes anywhere but still manages to sound rather menacing. With its 'do you still love me?' refrains, 'Still' brings us back to more familiar Balam Acab territory. 'Under' is a lovely way to finish, bringing back the watery theme from the main album matched with some great vocals and a fine melody.

Overall this an outstanding good album that belies Koone's age - it's graceful, assured and utterly beguiling. It is indeed a thing of wonder.

You can listen to three tracks from the album below:

BALAM ACAB - Apart by TriAngleRecords

Balam Acab - Motion by TriAngleRecords

BALAM ACAB - Oh, Why by TriAngleRecords

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