Friday, 31 May 2013

Small Black - Limits Of Desire


For anyone living in the Northern hemisphere, it's the perfect time to be listening to the likes of Neon Indian, Washed Out, Memorytapes and the like who strive on the hazy, heatstrokes of electronic sound, while at the same categorically loathe the very title most have come to define their sound. Chillwave is, undoubtedly, the (electronic) sound of summer though; the music of twenty-plus Celsius temperatures, translucent flares entering our eyes and the unremitting joy (or moan, if you're British) of living amidst the heat - weather-based or not - and atmosphere of the day. For many, it's an individual aim; a solo effort built from nostalgic reminiscence of past similarly joyous moments, all the way up to the present day. But for Small Black, the aim appears to be built four-fold, and navigated more towards the immediate present. New Chain, Black's 2010 debut, may have seen chillwave taken to its utmost limit as a sound resonating warmth, but beyond that it showed Black still hold enough credential in the accompanying fields of synthpop and indie electronic to mount a counter-offensive against the haze and the euphoria of past delight. Perhaps that's what both the name and the expose-like artwork to sophomore, Limits Of Desire, are trying to convey - a sense of absolute realization, and a reaction to such laid-upon limitations on chillwave's signatory bliss of the past.

Free At Dawn certainly opens with the suspicion that Small Black not only strive to escape the bliss of previous, but that their endeavors are more provoking and personal to the point of direct interaction. 'I've been keeping myself from you/Hoping that you just come to' vocalist Ryan Heyner expresses, his voice remaining hesitantly transfixed amid the rhythm of synths and choral overcast that bend and mold the piece towards its more weightless characteristic. It's only when the synths kick up and usher in more heavier, percussive elements does the track begin to mirror vocalist's withdrawn, but clearly hopeful sway of lyrics. By the time the drumbeats emerge from out the disdain and into the frontal layers of the track, the music becomes less concealed and feels as if more confident and assured in its stance. It's a good way to introduce Canoe which, by contrast, is straight off the bat with its confident foray of unfazed percussion and vocals which hold a lot more colour and level of freshness to their detail. But above all, it's the drumbeats that remain at the wheel of this track, and for good reason. The more acute and pristine textures strike quite an interesting contrast with the rest of the instrumentation; synthesizers offering even more weightlessness but coming across (rightly so) as ushering in colour and tone as opposed to a dictation of clarity...or the lack of it.

But it's No Stranger where Small Black appear to make use of their chillwave aesthetics yet in a forwarded, face-first directness. Heyner himself acts as a kind of dimming beacon amid the track's sub-bass of drums and murmured synthesizers, and as if catching onto the same manner of a metaphor, the guitar-like sweep of electronics cast the song in evermore grand shades of bright colours and texture. So in regards to delivery and execution, Small Black obtain a sense of reason and craftsmanship with their palette of oblique and hazed electronics. But it's rather despondent that when the track closes off in what feels like an emotively-charged relay of beats and electronics, that the vocals end up not just muffled amid the sprawl of tone and colour, but that the actual architecture and layering of the piece feels as if it's collapsing in on itself - that the sounds have somehow lost their ideal meaning and are slipping dangerously close to, perhaps, a more glorified, synthesized form of drone. Fortunately, Small Black's more wondrously, poppier melodies like Sophie demonstrate a (pardon the pun) limiting of the need to show desire in a particular reach of synthesized sound. There remains some blurring of the boundaries between the percussive and the electronic elements, but there's more a feeling - aided most-definitely by the track's frosty, late-night atmosphere helped in parts to the repeating chime graciously coming in-between passages - of understanding and focus with what it is the band are trying to encapsulate in their sound. Because of this, the track succeeds in generating more of a visual abstraction for the listener, than perhaps a solitary audible one.

Further to that, with the track Breathless, there's definitely more a focus on the rhythmic and structural integrity to the track as opposed to simply lavishing a sound with even larger breadths of electronics and effect-laiden textures. It's the simpler lead of synthesizers and drumbeats here that show a certain kind of compromise that doesn't overly damage or hinder the band from expressing a need for venture and far-flung discovery. Certainly, the use of reverb and echo without question is here to express a level of adventure and passion, but at the same time, it doesn't swallow up the momentum and the more engineered aspects to the music. Small Black's understanding then becomes two-fold in its output, as the album gradually slips into its latter offering. The return of the wintry, snow-covered bliss on Proper Spirit may, as we discover, be a paradox to chillwave's summer vibe, but the point that Small Black appear to be wanting to escape that confine, clearly shows. Heyner too, though clearly pegged down a couple of layers on the production floor, still manages to sustain himself and show, via his own tone and harmony, to want to lift himself out of the obscured focal of electronics. The music too - which offers a pleasant confidence and desire of guitars - may well be seen as not necessarily objecting to wanting to explore the multitude of synthesized colour and texture, but at the same time providing enough clarity and drive to suggest this isn't exactly a sound Black want to be shackled to.

While it's understandable that the band want to remain balanced and neutral on the argument between cast-iron chillwave and exploratory synthpop, the unfortunate drawback is that their attempting to satisfy both parties leaves their delivery - as much as the actual culminations of music - sounding rather less expansive than what most tracks here are suggesting. The problem then, is that despite their album title hinting at a 'limit', there's very little to suggest their music has got both eyes set on preventing their music going over a supposed threshold. Only A Shadow manages to create a very thorough and cleanly-swept rhythm and lead of drums, but while the ideas and themes of discovery and momentum may very well be present, it's the lack of holding back and focusing on where the track is progressing, that ends up diluting the crispness and potential conviction of the track in its earlier moments. In the end it comes off like a trans-continental flight...only for the plane to end up landing thirty minutes after take-off, because of turbulence.

It's important to understand, and more-so to be able to differentiate, between criticizing the effects Small Black apply onto their sounds, and the manner at which all these sounds come together. And further to that unfortunately, the way they compromise and conflict with each other's placement and reason for being. Shook Loves is another fortunate example of Black managing to look past the need for mounds of tone and fogged production and using the simpler stripping-back of layering to bring to light the spaciousness of their music. The way the synthesized textures feel much lesser in substance - while still expelling a level of blurred quality and breadth amid the piece - allows the more complacent percussion and interaction between sounds to show themselves. The vocal harmonies and positioning of Heyner's offering of lyrics, bring to light most importantly the presence of space and possible isolation within this song. And through this ultimately, it ends up, ironically, catching the listener's mentally-constructed field of vision, simply because it offers the allusion of space, rather than outright filling it with bloated content.

Without question, Small Black have succeeded in one small part, to convince their audience their debut (which was as much a frivolous response to chillwave's warming retreat into the past) and their sophomore are two separate stages in developing towards an exploration of their characteristic sound, than simply a translation from one moment in time to the next. Limits of Desire then, can't be faulted for being the culmination of this deeply-detailed, objectively-passionate manifesto in breathing life into electronic textures and the colours they so graciously project outwards. Unfortunately, it's the fact that Black's chillwave and synthpop ideas meet head-on, that creates a kind of yielded friction between the two sub-genres' philosophy on progressing a sound from simple binary value to universal value and beyond. But where there are moments where the move towards synthpop beats gets lost amid the former field's use of effects and analogous nostalgia, Small Black equally manage to assert a balancing act between expanding the sounds they generate, and ensuring the structure of such tracks still holds a means to harmonize and intertwine the layers composing it. There's only so many times you can criticize a band's passion and foundered intention to discover, before sinking too far into personal attacks. Let's hope then, as will be one of the major notes to take away from this album, Small Black's journey isn't met with as near the same level of musical turbulence.
~Jordan

6.8

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