Review Summary: A welcome and impressive addition to her back catalogue, it's just a shame that it doesn't feel like very much more.
Finding a niche is a problem most young artists face at some point very early in their careers. For most people it's difficult because you've got to set yourself apart from others, and - put simply - a lot of bands are fearful or incapable of sounding notably different to their peers. Imogen Heap doesn't face that problem, but she does have an almost equal challenge to which to rise, because it's all a case of balance. Heap has her little corner of electronic-based pop singer-songwriting all marked out in chalk, courtesy of her trippy mechanical beats, dark piano and quirky soundscapes. But the more specifically you define your music, the more facets of it become difficult to break away from. 1998's i Megaphone
set the tone - spacy, dream-like and ethereal - and Speak For Yourself (2005) was a more impressive effort, but despite Ellipse's attempts to find new sonic nooks to explore, it frequently comes off as forced or unsuccessful.
Thankfully, Imogen Heap knows her basics inside-out, and as a result Ellipse is more than a pleasant listen. Her airy vocals are the sort that serve as an extra instrument, adding depth to the overall aesthetic which is only amplified when she layers backing vocals four and five times over to create a wall of delicate words. This immersion does mean that she sometimes gets lost in the chaos, but for the most part the melodies she carries are soft and slow-burning without being invisible, and crucially they have an infectious quality that underlines her ability as a prolific collaborative artist, able to fit most places without sounding unusual and always delivering subtle hooks galore. Wait It Out's euphoric climax is a perfect example of Heap blending her stylings with a barrage of guitars, stuttering drums and pianos, as she croons, 'We'll be long gone by then, and lacklustre'
And she's never short of confidence, that's for sure, but there are points on Ellipse so misguided that they come across as awkward. Bad Body Double, for example, plays over background hmm
s and drums for nearly a minute, setting the tone for a surprisingly monotonous track with fairly cringeworthy lyrics about low self-esteem, repeating the alliterative and irritating line 'I've got bad body double trouble'
over the sort of music you'd expect from an early Crash Bandicoot loading screen. Elsewhere, Swoon is a heavily electronic song which sounds partly like a mellow Panic! At The Disco cover with female vocals, rescued from total mediocrity by a passable chorus and dramatic, louder post-chorus with ambience filling the gaps that otherwise plague the track. Ellipse as a whole is more minimalistic than iMegaphone or Speak For Yourself but there are points at which the direction simply sees her removing nuances without replacing them.
That said, her third full-length album holds a ton of gorgeous moments - the enchanting piano instrumental The Fire, for example, which sits atop the sound of crackling flames and is a genuinely beautiful interlude. Closer Half Life is arguably the record's most beautiful offering, witnessing Heap at her most fragile and her lyrics at their introspective best - I'm clenching my ticket to the only way out, as you disappear in a puff of smoke
- and ending the album on a tender note. Emotionally, she doesn't give too much away, choosing her moments to calm things down. Between Sheets begins reminiscent of Animal Collective's In The Flowers but that drops out to a piano which again builds to a rhythmically similar keyboard and presenting one of her most varied vocal efforts. Most of the time, especially on the more up-tempo tracks like Aha! and Earth (where she echoes Alanis Morissette) she stays distant, intriguing and far too sweet to explain.
Ellipse doesn't come off as overly confused; the common strands of transcendent beauty and trippy, layered atmospherics remain despite an overall less huge
sonic texture, and Heap as a vocalist is expectedly on top form. But despite the creeping melodies and hollow pianos that are so abundant, there's a nagging feeling that there's only so much Heap can do without reaching for something more ambitious and varied. Nevertheless, Ellipse will be hugely appreciated by her existing fanbase and contains enough great material to win her more admirers. It's a welcome and impressive addition to her back catalogue; it's just a shame that it doesn't feel like much more than that.