Review Summary: Precise electronic foundations meld with Louisiana blues to form another original and utterly compelling release from Recoil. Carla Trevaskis does her best Beth Fraser impression
Few genre combinations would sound as awkward and chalk-and-cheese as electronica and blues. While not an entirely new concept (Moby had a stab with his Play album) it’s still dangerous territory for any artist concerned with a loss of accessibility. But Recoil is no commercial venture. This is an album you really have to ‘listen’
to. Of course, when you throw a hefty dollop of trip-hop into the mixture, and stretch your tracks to an average length of nine minutes each, you have to hope that there’s a competent producer at the helm. Thankfully, there is.
Alan Wilder, for thirteen years the man responsible for building the dramatic highs that underpinned Depeche Mode’s dark dramas, returns with the latest release from Recoil, a solo project that frequently employs numerous ‘guest’ vocalists and experiments wildly (rather apt) with bubbling electronica, trip-hop and maudlin lyrics. It’s been seven years since the last release Liquid
, and though the darkness is still there to shadow every verse in a gloomy, almost sexual aura, subHuman
spreads its demonic wings to encompass a broader musical palette, one with ethereal leanings of dreamy, sentimental trip-hop (‘Allelujah‘)
, rhythmic military mashers (‘5000 years‘)
, and full-on, hammer-and-tong blues twangers (‘The Killing Ground‘)
. In terms of depth, however, Moby’s Play
is a mere kiddies paddling pool compared to the Mariana Trench that is Recoil’s subHuman
. Lyrically, the album explores the theme of what it means to be human, and whether it’s through religion, war, torture or drugs, we all see ourselves according to different labels (race, religion, sex, politics); themes that are brought to life by the music, and the distinctive vocal styles of Joe Richardson and Carla Trevaskis.
Joe Richardson is a blues singer/songwriter from Louisiana that Alan discovered quite by accident on the Internet, when looking for guest vocalists. Having exhausted most of the distinctive female singers on the last album Liquid
(which included the likes of poet, writer, artist, and all-round amazing person Nicole Blackman), his approach this time seemed to favour the style of previous Recoil trip-hop/blues track, ’Jezebel‘
. And so, five of the seven songs on this album have Joe at the helm, growling his smoky bass voice around lyrics such as these:
“A thief on the left and one on the right
Up on the hill about twilight
One lived forever, the other died
While a thorny head hung to one side…”
Those lyrics are from ‘The Killing Ground‘
, the centrepiece of subHuman
, a drawn-out, complex masterpiece of ominous pianos, moans, murmuring, hisses, and pounding drums, that give way to a bluesy-twangfest for the middle six minutes (track length ten minutes), with a crazy, out of control organ urping away over the verses. Joe also deals effectively with drugs, ‘Backslider‘
throbbing away its rhythm with harmonicas and crunchy guitars, while that subtle electronic foundation holds the track together, increasing the tension as Joe grunts,
“Backslider, Backslider, lost in pain
Can’t slay the dragon when he’s running through your veins“
His rich, gravelly voice does threaten to dominate the album, however, so Alan chose a singer from the other end of the musical spectrum to handle the more wistful, delicate tracks: English singer Carla Trevaskis, who is on fine form on the paranoid ‘Intruders‘
, a track that also ends with several minutes of impromptu studio jamming from Joe’s band (which unfortunately goes on for rather too long). However, she’s most noticeable on ‘Allelujah‘
, which has nothing to do with Leonard Cohen and everything to do with Massive Attack’s Mezzanine
- it could almost be a missing track, being rather similar to the mighty ‘Group Four‘
from that album. No words necessary; she just sings, umms and ahhs in her own ambient way; the result is sensually haunting.
It’s all brought together by the tension that Mr. Wilder is so expert at creating. Fine vocals and meaningful lyrics aside, the darkness that comes with each track has little to do with cliched lyrics or an over-abundance of minor keys; it’s all in the subtleties. The most bizarre sounds will suddenly jump out or creep up, all when you least expect them. Slide guitar twangs all over the place in ‘The Killing Ground‘
, helicopter rotors spatter the speakers during ‘5000 Years‘
, and muffled gun-blasts and cackling laughter lurk in lead single ‘Prey‘
. This loving attention to detail is the reason why the track length is justified; the complex sonic arrangements of subHuman
simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The tracks generally follow the pattern of a slow, ominous build-up, an explosive mid-section, and a wind-down, yet the varied approach means that you never notice - one track just rolls seamlessly into another.
Alan Wilder, the reclusive musician and electronic mastermind behind Recoil, has cemented his position with this delicious slice of high-class, intelligent sonic wizardry. Epic rhythm tracks, ominous electronic shudders, dreamy, ghostly reflections and nightmarish climaxes all gang together and ride the blues wave, then spit out the result. Which is refined, distilled, inaccessible, painstaking, unnerving, ultra-tense electronic trip-hop. They shouldn't have let him go.