Review Summary: A consistently impressive album from a surprisingly unknown artist. One of 2010's best so far.
My first encounter with Emancipator came when a friend showed me a mashup he stumbled upon while doing research for a mashup party that we were going to DJ. It was certainly not a mashup meant for the party, but we immediately thought it one of the better mashups we encountered during our investigation of the mashup world. The mashup combined Sigur Ros’s “Untitled 1” and Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones, Pt. 2” and was entitled “Shook.” On paper, this does not seem like an ambitious mashup. In fact, the floating, beatless “Untitled 1” seems like the worst choice for background music for Mobb Deep’s rapping. To remedy this problem, Emancipator put his own influence into the mashup, cutting up the synths and Jonsi’s vocals to create a more rhythmic instrumental. Then, he put a beat behind the surgery performed on the Sigur Ros original. Going further than making “Untitled 1” fit into a hip-hop aesthetic, Emancipator put saxophone squeaks, vibraphone, and other subtle countermelodies into the mix. To a listener who has never heard “Untitled 1”, the blend of Emancipator’s instrumentals and Sigur Ros’s instrumental is probably indistinguishable, and this ability to blend different elements into already beautiful “Untitled 1” forms the true beauty of Emancipator’s mashup.
Unfortunately, this is the only mashup we found of Emancipator’s. He is, instead, a trip-hop artist composing original music. Safe in the Steep Cliffs
is his second release, the follow-up to 2006’s Soon It Will Be Cold Enough
, an unnoticed trip-hop gem. Those who did notice praised it highly and eagerly anticipated his next release. Safe in the Steep Cliffs
does not disappoint, even with the immensely high expectations that Soon It Will Be Cold Enough
placed upon the young artist. He achieves this by imbuing his signature sound with new instruments--banjo, mandolin, and horns--just as organically as his typical blend of beats and guitars featured on Soon It Will Be Cold Enough
The result is a perfection of the organic sound that trip-hop artists such as RJD2 have tried with limited success. “Shook” hinted at Emancipator’s ability to combine different sounds smoothly, but Safe in the Steep Cliffs
completes the process consistently. “Old Devil” opens with tremolo strings, which fade out into a plucked guitar pattern with a strong bass and beat behind it. Suddenly, banjo enters, the strings return, and all of the different components trade the melody. On top of the trading of melody like an old-time ensemble, Emancipator creates subtle breakbeat breakdowns mid-song without disrupting the tight groove he has already constructed.
The one flaw from Soon It Will Be Cold Enough
--a fatal flaw--was that some songs had no distinguishable qualities. With Emancipator’s new range of sounds, this is no longer the case. For example, “Rattlesnakes” has a distinctly southwest American flavor due to the main guitar riff and Native American flute floating in and out of the texture. “Jet Stream” has a funkier groove than the rest of the album with Latin percussion, tasteful rim clicks, and a syncopated bass line. “All Through the Night” might be the most chilled song on the album, with a peaceful plucked guitar pattern, Rhodes piano, and a calm, unimposing beat forming the backdrop.
The list of discernible sounds goes on through the entire 14-track album. If the album lacks anything, it lacks moments of true climactic power, but even the idea of a loud, busy climax contradicts Emancipator’s flow and style. Despite the layers upon layers of sound, Safe in the Steep Cliffs
is decidedly chilled and flowing. Still, if Emancipator is to grow in any way, it would be with more contrasting dynamics. Because of this scarcity, the brilliance of his different layers and varying sounds may go unnoticed. Nevertheless, the smoothness of Emancipator’s production is extremely impressive, and he may be the best unsung trip-hop artist around right now, beating heavyweights RJD2 and Four Tet at their own game with not one, but fourteen fell swoops.