Thursday, 20 February 2014

Illum Sphere - Ghosts Of Then And Now


As the co-founder of Manchester's [hot/cool?] club gathering in the Hoya:Hoya base, DJ and producer Ryan Hunn knows all too well about the mystifying realm of late-night leisure. Be it the enclosing swarm of natural light, the comfort-level flux between unifying and outright awkward; the magnetizing drive beat patterns and grooves often generate, dancefloor or simple perimeter lounge alike. But no matter the specific locale, Manchester, London, Chicago or New York; there's an underlining aroma and air about scenes such as this at the point wherein both clock hands strike twelve, and all communal hands lift up like some proto-tribal practice in addressing one uniform messge: 'I...we...are ready'. It's an image replicated on the cover to Hunn's debut LP as Illum Sphere, a perhaps potentially misleading figurement of raised arms behind - or perhaps leaning onto - fogged-over, frosted-up dispersion. This eeriness and sense of partial confoundness with one's surroundings as a result is among one of the core themes explored on Ghosts Of Then And Now, a record that takes to the post-midnight affair witn neither alligned nor antagonistic sway.  In such middle-ground neutrality, Hunn's preference and profiling of the evening doctrine - of the environments, cultures, actions and movements that emerge from such a situation - is neither tainted by effect, yet still manages to cascade in recognizably darker-shaded production present in a lot of modern day, sole-trading electronica.

And yet, bizarrely, it doesn't; the proliferating terms of dark, dense or confounding do persist on this record, but in a way that - as we explore the many fashioned surroundings of Hunn's sound - don't appear to fit the trope of this moody, atmospheric setting of urban/after-dark sounds. The withdrawing piano keys and cinematic spries on opening track Liquesce do instantly give first-timers (and perhaps old-timers from the years when Illum Sphere's EP's were more outspoken and encompassing) the sense that Sphere's influence of this brooding, unshackled sound are present, even in a laid back lounge setting as is the track's initial suggestion. But moving onto At Night and the vibe, while keeping to that energizing flutter between vocal and percussive snippets, begins to instill more an active role in its environment rather than being a mere ghostly flicker or after-thought that perhaps this certain sonic treatment would otherwise implore. Sleeprunner then is where Illum Sphere perfectly breaks away from any mitigated norm troubling this sub-field with a babbling synth arpeggio that, together with some accompanying low-end bass and inevitable knob-turning climaxes, reinvogarates the high-scope, intrinsicately-detailed club setting Hunn holds with the utmost degree of both intrigue, and careful calculation.

Even on the album's most acquaint and soulful of offerings as on the densely skewed The Road, Sphere's gelling of downtempo and bass work; of the relaxed and the relinquishing of sub-genre ideals, creates its most anxious - and thus interesting - ideas of the entire album. Here, clunking clicks and textures of percussion are but the solitary keeper in what is a brooding and sparse void of dark ambiance mixed with Shadowbox's vibrant tone of voice that ends up melting from view into what is this elapsing, mirky air of sonics. Follower Ra_Light, while does allow its instrumentation to have a bit more weight and visibility to its presence, still latches (or winds up remaining to be latched) onto the production's tightening clasp of bass rhythms and amplifying distortion that swirls about the mix in some wall or sea of feedback - formless, yet keeps the fine balance between conventional 'light' and 'dark'-grounded electronics a present debate to ponder over. But not all of Hunn's deliveries are entirely fogged-up or deliberately claustrophobic. One of the gratifying attributes to an album such as this - more-so a record that cements its influences in urban-orientated sub-genres such as garage, techno, uk bass and so on - is that when it matters in the case of instrumental delivery and the simplicity of such, Hunn knows how to uncover the solace and stripped-back aesthetic this often entails, without losing any of his previous fortitude in the moodier, ambient-like tread of previous.

It'll Be Over Soon could easily fit into a Nicolas Jaar's track-listing - the mumbling piano chords and simple pop-and-click's of percussion reminding me fondly of some of the American-Chilean's solo stand-outs. And we soon discover in the tracks latter half - tense builds of twisting synths - even in the most nimble and intimate of solitary surroundings, Illum Sphere's particular brand of atmospheric effect is one that can be, impressively, integrated into even the most bare-yet-honest of required locale. Thus, Hunn's directory of musical visage is not limited to the club or perhaps the techno-driven, bass-heavy dancefloor as might have been suggested previous. Moving onto the second half of the album, Sphere's prooving grounds continue to broaden out from the artificial lighting of late nights into more naturally-lit avenues wherein the album's sound begins to take on more testing and differentiating appearences. One Letter From Death therefore could be considered [the first of] Hunn's less-than-decisive attempts at broadening his aesthetic out and unfortunately spreading too thin for any material worth to be fully felt. While the swirling figurement of strings return this time in the company of some slowed-down guitar lines, glazing piano slides and drum beats, the lack of any real brooding (or indeed overriding) atmosphere leaves the track's simplicity stuck in a bit of awkward obviousness.

The late-night wanderings improve though with the self-titled Ghosts Of Then And Now in its tentaive arpeggios and jazz-inspired organs adding an uncanny aroma to Sphere's remanded use of compressing bass and sample-based shifting percussion. But its surreality and degree of suspicion is quickly overshadowed thereafter; amplified by the track's latter surge of vibrant synths and rising mount of electronic tension and rhythmic bursts that what starts perhaps as a humble scenario brought on by lazed curiosity or simply lacking any desire for high-octane or physically demanding territories, soon turns emotively and even mentally engaging in opposing circumstances. Thus, I must (to balance this out) admit that while the minimal starting points, as on tracks like this, do evolve into something explicitly more engaging, there's no hiding Sphere's simplicity on approach does find itself treading too close a line to downtempo's unfortunate circumstances in bordering on uninspiring. Still, moments such as these are few and far between, and even when Hunn's compositions are at a point lacking - or maybe even devoid - of that former eery and/or ethereal overcoat, Sphere still manages to make the most of the transition from texturally-prominent beats to narratively-illustrative melodies. Like Gold Panda last year, despite the sonic and tonal differences, Illum Sphere shares in his fellow countrymen's resonance with particular sound pallettes and ensuring the most important aspect is of the themes and vibes with which extend upon the instrumentation offered.

Thus, Hunn successfully reaches a particular merit in his musical acumilations wherein we return to these sounds in order to dissect and understand them better - the multi-layered, varying densities offering enough of a vagueness for us to become engaged, but not too much so as to continue to soak in the album's primary undergrowth of bass rhythms, percussive mixes and vocal chatter that may or may not be just one small part of what is going on. Lights Out/In Shinjuku is, unfortunately, another scenario where repetition and stability end up landing Illum Sphere in questionable territory as to its desired path and reasons for the listener being left in something of a lonely, solitary stand-point amid densely-crowded hordes and suffles of feedback and supposed activity. Near The End's similarly congested weight however offers a much better delivery in its strikingly dominant groove of bass synths and piano that not only make the listener feel like they're a part of the track's environment, but also - with a bit of quirkiness - home in on the music's own bombastic centre-stage exuberence. Embryonic ultimately best sums up the album's second half shift in its sonic positioning and the way it stands nowhere as near the looming, claustrophobic vibe of a club setting the first half injected on frequent arrival.

The very fact that I reference Jaar & Panda in the same breath shows how far Illum Sphere's breadth and scope of sound can potentially stretch to. And with Ghosts Of Then And Now, Hunn's fusion of accesible, modern-day electronic favourites (both to create and to listen to) - from techno to bass to RnB to downtempo - provide some interesting alternatives to the underlining use of tenser, impending production and mixing to emphasize a given track's particular atmospheric and environmental properties. For certain Hunn isn't declaring or brandishing anymore extreme variants as his peers in this field of more enclosed, contemporary electronica, but for the most part, Illum Sphere's particular generations of sound that require as much interest as they do generate it, are at the very least a welcome and refreshing alternative driven on fascinated, sought-after experimentation to yield surprising results. So while 'enjoyable' remains one of the album's lasting tags coming away from one soltary spin, Illum Sphere's reward - as much as it is our own - lands us with repeated listens fuelled on by further questions, further suspicions and an even greater mystey into just how far this stretch of the darkened imagination in music prodution, can end up taking us.
~Jordan Helm

7.5

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