Review: Umfang – Symbolic Use Of Light

 

Negative space seems to define Umfang’s latest full length, Symbolic Use Of Light. As if absorbing the utilitarian psychedelia of her artwork, the NY-based producer’s now idiosyncratic sound seems to invite the listener to colour between the rigid lines of her stark electronic music, its muted synthesis and rigorous drum tracks encouraging not just passive consumption but concerted force of imagination.
Across nine tracks of lean yet muscular techno, Emma Olson has crafted, honed and deployed a softly vibrant sound-palette, the parameters of which are defined by self-imposed hardware limitations – one take-tracks often utilising little more than a drum machine and a synthesiser, at times displaying an almost monastic sense of patience and restraint. As a result this LP is Olson’s most cohesive and confident project to date, and finds her operating with a renewed focus following 2015’s sample-oriented and self-confessedly “silly” Ok, for Canadian outpost 1080p.

Resolutely devoid of samples, lead single ‘Weight’ sounds funereal, as if lifted from a morbid dream-sequence, its slowly blossoming filter unfolding like a bud teased into light. The track shows remarkable economy, composed of just two alternating synth patterns, balanced atop a twitchy, compulsive drum track of mere kicks and rim shots – flitting elegantly between notions of movement and stagnation.
‘Pop’ explores similar territory, its minimally-minded funk squirming through the cracks of a rigid solo kick drum, it’s musical range limited to an almost mathematical methodology of simply equational rationalism. It’s clear Olson has worked hard to navigate the boundaries of minimalism within her chosen form, and here she successfully stretches these borders with grace.

By today’s modern standards, Symbolic Use Of Light could easily appear under-produced. But, on the contrary, therein lies the rugged charm of Olson’s sound; it harks back to the raw impulses driving the amateur producers of Detroit and Chicago – the sheer willingness to squeeze as much as possible from an austere set of tools is surely a solid marker of a fine producer. By disregarding the frivolous, ultimately unnecessary micro-details of obsessive production, Symbolic Use Of Light underlines the kinetic and aesthetic genius of electronic dance music.
In reviving this approach, Olson has further solidified the Umfang identity, and marked herself as one of the most distinctive and assured voices in techno. Her second album marks a bold assertion of style and a confident start to the next chapter of her deserved rise through the ranks.

 

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Review: 1-800 Dinosaur Presents Trim

Trim puts his best foot forward

After well over ten years in the game, it would be fair to say Trim seems somewhat tired of Grime. An original member of the genre defining Roll Deep crew, alongside such scene patriarchs as Dizzee and Wiley, Trim has experienced every twist and turn of a turbulent decade-and-a-half in which the genre’s sub-cultural capital has both plummeted and soared, enduring a tempestuous relationship with the British pop establishment. In a candid interview with Noisey he even proclaimed: “My advice to anyone wanting to do music is DON’T! Unless god literally comes down and tells you to. And even then after my experiences, I’d still say no.”

He hasn’t exactly made things easy for himself either. No stranger to altercations, he left Roll Deep in 2007 and subsequently tore through nihilistic rivalries and all too personal beefs, spawning champion diss tracks, from War Report to The Lowdown, whilst provoking sublime responses in the form of Wiley’s Now Hear Diss and Last Day of 09. Following a public fallout with former label, Rinse (blasted on Twitter as “Jus one big orgy”), Trim’s focus has split between establishing his own label, Secluded Area of Music, a steady stream of Soulfood mix-tapes, and a batch of sparse but fruitful collaborations.

Of these partnerships, most promising was the mechanised psychedelia of James Blake’s excellent 2012 ‘Harmonimix’, Confidence Boost; a re-framing of the Soulfood Vol.2 A Capella cut of the same name. A cartoonish miasma of whirling sirens and weaponised drum shots, Blake’s masterclass squeezed and tugged at Trim’s typically arrhythmic flow, transposing his gruff delivery into a strange choir of alien harmonics and slippery, iced out textures. It was the sound of an individual in exile; of Trim doubling down on his divergence from the wider UK scene, and from any semblance of collective identity — the beginning of a tentative affiliation with Blake’s label 1–800 Dinosaur.

Four years on, and the result is this; 1–800 Dinosaur Presents Trim, a lean ten track album which sways precariously amidst past confrontations and ambitious future facing methodology. It finds Trim attempting (though not always succeeding) to push past his ambivalent relationship with a genre he’s contributed so much of his life and career to, and establishing new ground in stranger territory. It’s also an inspired convergence of UK production talent, with appearances from Blake, Airhead and Happa among others; at times a fraught exercise in artistic management and cohesiveness, it’s a definitive if occasionally cluttered cross examination of the label’s sonic personality as a malleable, cross-genre force.

The album finds it’s greatest strength in Trim’s willingness to mirror the lopsided weirdness of it’s beats, both lyrically and rhythmically. Conjuring disquieting, psychedelic imagery in opener Stretch (“…this games a bitch and they’re all try’na impregnate her / producing all this sterile semen”) and Sci-Fi mysticism in highlight 13th Apostle (“Lord Sith with humanoid fiends / Hybrid, using telekinesis”), these squirming poly-rhythmic instrumentals capture Trim at his most visual and tactile — a refreshing departure from Rap’s stiflingly literal fascinations with power and respect.
Elsewhere Trim deploys his signature poly-rhythmic flow to varied effect. Utilising a semi-spoken, almost conversational delivery amidst the plunging percussion of Among the Living he shapes interesting reflections of radio chatter, the explanatory tone drawing the listener further into this storytelling mode. It melds wholly with the staccato convulsions of the instrumental, whilst earnest interjections of nostalgic synth tones are refracted through a hall of mirrors, producing a hazy flash back of bittersweet reminiscence.

The varied production, drawn from a wide pool of affiliates and label mainstays, seems eagerly assembled to extract different levels of energy from the MC whilst teasing out sonic artefacts from Grime’s rough and ready aural palette. The pummeling Happa produced banger Before I Lied is the album’s insidiously ear worming moment, with monstrously bulky brass stabs encouraging Trim to shed his preoccupations and hit the beat heavy and hard. It’s one of the few tracks with a solid vocal hook to latch onto, and alongside the rugged choppiness of Man Like Me, a playful juncture in an overwhelmingly pensive and reflective project. Another highlight, the soaring White Room, juxtaposes fluttering piano chords with bursts of dissonant feedback swells, a messianic choir gliding above the tremulous, operatic energy below as Trim rallies irritably against his rivalries (“I paint some pictures / Who better than me to start a grand war?”). The instrumental becomes so powerful at points that the MC’s vocals are almost entirely engulfed in the violent shimmer, making you wish the crescendo conjured in the instrumentation was somehow mirrored via an escalation of delivery or contorted vocal manipulation.

And herein lies one of the album’s dilemmas: the twists and turns of these chaotic instrumentals not only distract the listener from any vocal narrative but also underline the lack of any abstract production or manipulation of Trim’s voice — the kind that made confidence boost so unusually potent. Take, for instance, the Blake produced RPG, a deranged entanglement of queasy synth patterns, fluctuant bass and vacant alphabetics; the track could barely sound more hostile to an MC’s ear. Trim does his best to bounce across the nauseous carousel, repeating certain semi-hooks (“28 shots, side of the car”) but is ultimately left wobbling precariously in the centre of it all, attempting to twist and contort his flow through asynchronous cracks in the mix — his voice begging for some kind of rapport with the rampant synthesisers. In it’s strive for Death Grips-like sonic warfare, its an overly ambitious congregation of chaos which can’t seem to decide who’s the star of the show.

As the album draws to a close, another gripe surfaces with Trim’s often repetitive subject matter, a general air of misanthropic frustration which pervades nearly every track on the album. Whilst his acrimony is somewhat entertaining and playful to begin with (“MC’s bad like Miley’s twerking”), towards the end of the project it feels like he’s pushed these themes of betrayal and disrespect to their outer limits. There’s an almost obsessive focus on other people’s perceptions (“What do you think is wrong? / Who told you I wasn’t on my grind daily?”), alongside his considerations of a lack of public recognition amongst MCs and critics. It’s enough to make you yearn for more of the vivid ‘Trimanosaurus’ style brags and shots that originally galvanised Trim’s cult following as Grime’s enduringly loveable outsider.

Trim is still arguably the UK’s most underrated MC, and this album is a defiant reaffirmation of his self imposed departure from the Grime establishment. It shows the artist in a transitional moment, a reinvention still yet to be fully realised, but nonetheless set in motion by these exploratory and expansive excursions into alien, uncomfortable territory. Whilst heavyweights Skepta and Stormzy have distilled the essence of a hit-making formula, Trim seems content on deconstructing, extracting and dissolving these perennials into something wholly reflective of his unwillingness to fit in. If past preoccupations can be shed, Trim has illuminated a path of intriguing artistic potential, however fragile that may be, and however open the wounds of the past remain.