In a sense, all music is sound collage. Musicians layer discrete instruments or synths to turn disassociated fragments into a coherent whole. Unfortunately in the dance world this transformative process frequently falls back on formula; with innumerable electronic tracks floating around on the web harbouring uninventive compositions forced into identical structures. Since he stepped onto the scene a couple of years back, DjRum has done it differently.
Felix Manuel first stepped into view with a couple of low-key (but certainly worthwhile) releases that toyed with dark atmospheres and dubbed-out effects. On 2011’s superb Mountains EP a unique talent was announced; four crackling club constructions were filled by gorgeous vocal and instrumental samples, all underpinned by dusty beat patterns and low-end to spare.
Already an interest in longer forms could be seen; such as in the combined 14-minute stretch of Mountains or the extended nocturnal discursions of his Watermark 12”. Here was an artist exploring laterally, unburdened by the structural formulas that relegate so much dance music to homogeneity. Now he returns to his stable at the reliable 2nd Drop imprint to drop the label’s first long-player, returning to his sample-heavy approach with a new warmth perfectly suited to the album format.
Felix Manuel’s approach to layers and samples is handled with a rare artisanal quality, each collection of found sounds and machine music thoughtfully shaped into coherent songs that shift and mutate before your ears. Although his music seems to run to some unfathomable dream logic, his debut album, Seven Lies, never comes across as anything other than an artistic whole. A quick glance at the gorgeous cover art should assure the listener that this is a complete work, put together with delicacy, love, and more than a little grit; and all this just so happens to result in one of the most intoxicatingly atmospheric albums you’re likely to hear all year.
The individual quality to Manuel’s sounds are a direct result of his organic approach to structure and sampling. Opener Obsession is a perfect example: a typical field of syncopated beats and airy synth work plays host to delicate wind and string samples which add a genuinely emotive strain to the sound. The following two tracks, Como Los Cerdos and the magnificent DAM continue to lope along with hip hop swagger, with head-nodding grooves drawing melodic themes from a maze of musical influences; obvious touchstones like garage, jazz and hip hop nestling against dub, opera and old movie samples. Manuel’s attention to structure is particular evident on the latter, DAM’s final minutes introducing swooping strings and ghosts of crackling grime bars that prove a fitting close.
A trio of powerful tracks follow that delve deeper and darker, most impressively on the constantly evolving garage stepper Arcana (Do I Need You). Here percussive accents, notably textured drum rolls and compressed claps, are accompanied by an increasingly heavy low-end, before Manuel allows the track to unspool beautifully in its final movement, the fractured re-emergence of the refrain showing his deft skill at processing vocals. Again, it’s the structure of these disparate elements which is so impressive; tracks like Lies work because of their contrast.
Here an exercise in dub physics is played out, balancing Shadowbox’s fragile vocals a nakedly beautiful harp line with generous bass weight and spare 2step mechanics. The album offers many such moments, where the listener may end up wondering just how Manuel conceived of piecing such different sounds together to endlessly imaginative ends.
Yet it is just over halfway through the album that a track arrives which is undoubtedly the culmination of DjRum’s work to date. Honey takes these soft / hard, light / dark binaries to their logical extreme, as a soulful vocal, ‘he’s a sinner’, is put through an electronic blender to startling effect. This is supplemented by cavernous bass stutters, mechanical clanking and serrated bass stabs which act as an unsettling counterpoint to the sweet instrumental samples. Not once across the album does Manuel let the quality slip either; his attention to contrast, detail and space is played out across a variety of forms, which continue through Arcana’s cold, dubbed-out coda and moody penultimate cut Anchors.
By the close of Seven Lies, DjRum has taken the listener on a journey through his influences, in turns fragmented and coherent, powerful and beautiful, warm and brooding. It is precisely because of these contrasts that he is able to evoke atmospheres of such power, each song constructs a musical space of shifting dimensions that the listener is invited to inhabit, rather than a simple layering of separate elements.
The ragged DnB assault of Thankyou proves the perfect closer, encapsulating all of Seven Lies’ strengths; tough and delicate, detailed with immaculate precision, a ninth thrilling slice of sonic engineering which is never less than dazzling. Here is an album by an artist who only plays by his own rules, and the infinitesimal details of each soundscape demand to be played again and again. Yet precisely because of Manuel’s prescient ability to augment his atmosphere with organic samples you’ll never completely unlock this album’s magical secrets.
2. Como Los Cerdos
4. Arcana (Do I Need You)
5. Lies feat. ShadowBox
7. Arcana (coda)
8. Anchors feat. ShadowBox