Review Summary: Think if Sputnikmusic's #1 album of 2007 didn't suck.
Burial's 2007 release, Untrue
was an album that was preceded by its own intrigue and lore. Burial is a lone wolf of an artist, preferring to release tracks incognito and dance to the beat of his own Casio RZ1, and this little detail was romanticized by critics, adding to the albums' hype. Even the genre of dubstep was backed wildly by artists and DJs that sampled from the wild world of pop, r&b, soul, and electronica. Dubstep was to 2007 as grime was to 2006. Untrue
even snuck onto the staff consensus list here at sputnikmusic.com like a Trojan horse, taking the #1 spot in a surprise jump over albums by Radiohead, Thrice, and The Kidcrash that had been stridently supported throughout all of 2007. However, after listening to the album a few times, I just couldn't get into it. It was too sparse, too brittle, too affected. I liked the notion of subduing dance tones to produce a rarified, artistic form of intelligent dance music that went in the opposite direction of the hyperdense Venetian Snares, but I really didn't think Burial pulled it off at all.
Enter Son Lux (Ryan Lott) and his debut LP, At War With Walls & Mazes
, an album that I argue does fulfill the expectation that Burial left void for me. The first distinction is that this album is not dubstep. It shares the dry tones and highly detailed, ambient production, but the beats are not bound to any one pattern of style. This freedom of beat structure is because Ryan Lott is essentially composing in the genre of singer-songwriter, writing personalized lyrics and acting as a 1-man show, but his output is wildly imaginative, blending influences from trip hop, dark ambient, pop, r&b, and indie. His beats on one track could be influenced by trip hop ("Weapons"), then pop on the next ("Betray"), and soul slow jams on the next ("Stay"). The beats are not tethered to genre and thrive as a result. And as the genre changes from song to song, so does the pitched accompaniment. "Tell" is a beatless, somber lullaby, "Wither" is a grimy pop track (whose stuttering echoed beat almost sounds like Justin Timberlake's "My Love"). "Epilogue" is a synth epic in the vein of M83. The album's best track and single, "Break" is a centaurian song, starting off with a very naturalist breakbeat and vocal glitch sound that moves into a beautiful and personal piano ballad for its second half. Ryan Lott composes over a vast range of genres that breathes a distinctively different life into each song. In fact, not one song on this album is below the highest echelon of trip hop and electronic music.
These genres would never come to form if it weren't for the production, which is nearly flawless. It allows Lott to mix and match genres, as the distinction between different influences are seamless. More importantly though, it sets tone. Burial's Untrue
, if will credit it for anything, had a distinctive tone. It was sparse and challenging without being overproduced or having a lot of different blips and noises. At War With Walls & Mazes
takes the general idea of having an icy backdrop, and extends and decorates that world as much as possible. "Weapons" is a low-key track with a repeating vocal reprise that is made amazing by a spattering of Xiu Xiu-esque feedback swells, glitch vocals loops, and doubled vocals with octave manipulation. And these effects are all secondary to the beautiful arrangement of synthesized vocals, harmonica, violins, and piano. "Betray" is slow burner in the spirit of Portishead that has a crackling vinyl effect mixed in with tremolo flutes and a soulful bass lick. If not for the subtle detail to each of those instrumental inclusions, the track could be a mundane trip hop song, but with the carefully chosen tones and effects, the song feels sexy in the same way "Glory Box" does. I cannot praise the production enough. It allows for all of the genre splicing to work perfectly and elevates simple songs to fully orchestrated masterpieces.
In fact, the only thing I can flaw this album for is being too contented with its beat patterns. At War With Walls & Mazes is a subdued, downtempo album, and all of the beats have the tendency to blur together over the 44-minute run time. The album isn't homogeneous, but sometimes I get wrapped into the hypnotic drone of it all and forget how great the individual tracks are. This criticism isn't even really a criticism though, it's just a whiny comment. In fact, I should probably just shut up. How about just this: Son Lux's At War With Walls & Mazes
, along with Have a Nice Life's Deathconsciousness
, is a strong contender for album of the year. It is the best electronic release since Venetian Snares' Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett
and puts our #1 album of 2007 to shame. It is nearly flawless, and the scary thing about all of this praise is that it's only his debut album.