Friday, 4 April 2014

SOHN - Tremors


Vienna-based, London-born producer and singer-songwriter SOHN stares on at the billowing current of steam lifting up on the cover to his debut full-length, Tremors, as if he's both in awe of its presence yet is understanding and appreciative of its existence equally so. It's a strong, visual stating of SOHN's own perception to narrative-homed song-writing, and something of which is built from the soul outwards. In this case, SOHN's soul eagerly vies to escape and release itself - the stress and concealment pushing both the man's lyricism and composition to the point of desperation. Needless to say SOHN has already made a name for himself - both as an artist as well as a producer - for homing in on such rough-trodden, slowly-pealing fusions of soul and electronica minus the bombastic showmanship that has come to shape (but help more-so) currently-trending RnB. No doubt this was one of the major bargaining chips that saw him land a deal with 4AD so swiftly and superbly in the first place. And with this raised platform to carry on the integrity of x amount of mood swings and negative emotions, Tremors makes itself out to be SOHN at his most pinnacle; his most vulnerable sure, but driven more-so to give his emotional leanings the voice and colour he himself often demonstrates through vocals, and vocal manipulation, alone.

Opener Tempest is no stranger to that process - a track which is built for the majority on sampled vocals that shunt, shift and phase in and out in pocketed pulses. Anyone who favours (and in this case, that's probably everyone save for myself) James Blake's work-around will instantly recognize - and perhaps quickly come to connect with the lead rhythm - SOHN's muting of the outside to start off; the track eventually lending room for some crisp drumbeats and synth pads to tone the piece into more this confessional sentiment his voice increasingly builds towards. The Wheel shortly after makes a stronger case however to prove that not all is as casual or as faint in lyrical emphasis as first appeared; SOHN's opening lines that 'I died a week ago/There's nothing left' instantly leaving the track - in all its sample-orderly structure and concealed presence - with something of a strange (though not black-or-white good/bad conclusion), withdrawn web of connection. This is slowly revealed more later on in the track, and while additional layers of clicking and clanking percussion get added on which creates a nice textural element, the track unfortunately falters in convincing me this is as fleshed out or even as focused on what particular emotive or conceptual leaning SOHN is targeting.

While the distinction between singer-songwriter and producer for SOHN is clear - his strive to strengthen the former coming up numerous times across the record - there's no denying that in moments such as Artifice, he proves his proficiency at getting the most out of his beat arrangement, but also balancing them with his strong, vocal emphasis. And here, on a track combining the soothing, stricken tones of RnB & soul with the crisp qualities to synth pop, SOHN's know-how in balancing rhythm and groove, with its tonal development and evolution, is great to see. Like all atypical verse-chorus-verse songs, if you can make the build-up worthwhile and provide the punch that bursts into life with SOHN declaring 'Somebody better let me know my name/Before I give myself away' amid shining step-for-step synth chords, drum rhythms and chattering vocal snippets. But the more soulful and richer attempts to reveal SOHN's emotive state come from the likes of Bloodflows which again initiate with that similar withdrawn, concealed veil about itself - SOHN's voice here accompanied by synth pads that are both weightlessly lofty and reaching in ascent at the same time. 

So to find ourselves being introduced, or reintroduced rather, to sterner, bubbly drumbeats (which admittedly have as much intrigue and affection as anything Four Tet or Gold Panda would fall on) and vocal distortion that plays more as an instrument in its own right, it's not without a tiny criticism of how it resorts to this similar surveying of previous, rather than expanding what began as this interesting, isolation. Not to say that SOHN's use of beats and synthesizers don't compel the tracks here to some latter sensation wherein it feels more complete and/or fulfilled. Rather in a field as strong as this - in a revitalized genre that has found the likes of Autre Ne Veut & Blood Orange establishing two polar-opposite, yet equally-astounding views on contemporary RnB - SOHN's initial input seems to float mid-drift, maybe not in this example parameter, but certainly with a feeling these beat patterns and synth usages aren't quite tied in as strongly to the track's motif as the vocals clearly resonate from. Tracks like Ransom Notes in which SOHN focuses more on the dynamic contrast between more crisper, slightly glitchier beats and the slow-nodding groove made by the introduction of guitar strings nestling in-between the mix, are a better offering as a result - assureing the song maintains its swirling, floating sensation

Like Artifice before it, when SOHN shows reluctance in pushing too forcefully his newer sounds, this variance on simple, stripped-back production - one that emphasizes on singular layers and allowing each piece the room to be fleshed out - works favourably when tieing in with this particular distancing proximity of vocals and lyrical themes SOHN continues to explore. But as far as additional instruments are concerned, when they do show up, as is the case on short-but-delicately-sweet Paralysed, the presence of this crunchy, grainy piano leading the track conjures up one of SOHN's most overwhelming and sensual tracks across the entire record. And here, his vocals match superbly with the song's cloudy, watery chord delivery and reversing, distorted samples that litter about in the backdrop. Fool equally so pulls the listener in towards its much more interesting tension and stance - at parts showcasing the hallmarks of underground, urban electronics with its twisted bass treatment and water-dripping synth notes, and in others blaring our eyes with flares of synthesizers and effects that the geography could be more psychological than anything. 

Thus, it's promising to find that when SOHN reverts to purely electronic, purely pure textures in drumbeats on Lights, that the former quips are non-existent; the track beginning with those delicately crisp equivalents in which the tracks gradually opens out and displays a colourfully more reflective side to itself - SOHN's vocals slotting neatly between the mix of gliding strings and bobbing percussion wherein the track eventually powers through with both a kick and a groove in its stride. With Lessons, the vocal presence shakes up a fraction with efforts put less into coaxing lyrics in space and effects, and instead focusing more on the harmonics and how SOHN, it seems, stands up to the track's persistence and pressuring force - the synthesizer arpeggios and trampling bass slightly tenser and menacing this time round. Tremors ends with another of these distinctly personal and sincere releasing of the man's inner, honest thoughts out into the open regardless of the resulting outcome. And while it's clear SOHN shares some remaining empathy and fondness for this former connection and intimacy - 'Bloodlines we etched when we merged into one' - there's no denying the ultimatum-esque directness presents him as someone, as hard as it may be, willing to move on, 'If you're thinking of letting me go, then it's time that you do.'

There's an interesting stitching of genres and fields SOHN uses here to explore what is clearly an album molded by experience (mostly the more unpleasant variants). Those who are fond of some click-clunk, stay-at-home, evening electronics will find pleasant munition; others whom have grown well attached to RnB's recent revival; even those who are fond of pop's influence with padded grooves and rhythms, there's something here for all three of these groups to satisfy, but perhaps not overly impress. Tremors unfortunately doesn't push this gelling of fields into something universally awe-inspiring or freshly inventive, but it does showcase SOHN's ability to borrow from this hushed, quieted singularity of space, and use it in a similar way soul peels back the layers that hold back the purest of human qualities. Whether that be through the delicate use of beats, or grappled soak of pads or effects, the measure of SOHN's meditative reflections are certainly high for the majority of cases. And whether you want an album you can easily slide yourself into, or one that puts you on the spot in some question-and-answer back-and-forth between parties, Tremors is reassuringly one you can add to either list.
~Jordan Helm

7.6

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