Review Summary: a promise of things to come
It’s Bristol, it’s 2011 and it’s an interesting time to be alive. For the ambitious student, it’s a city of codewords. “Put on something chill” means “play Black Sands
”, “something else” means Burial and “no, not that” means Phaeleh. Beneath the surface, everyone and their mum is creating introverted bass music. Some even makes its way on here, and for a while Bristol gets to feel like the trip-hop days all over again. More importantly, music critics had not talked it to death, Crofters Rights was still The Croft, and awkward tagalongs like me were yet to arrive en masse and ruin it.
This is all gone now: the city and the world in general have moved on through house, grime and techno to music no one will ever describe as “ethereal” (readers of music reviews rejoice!). However, in the face of this change Phaeleh just seemed to potter along with his own thing. His two releases in 2014 – the pleasant but not particularly memorable A World Without
and take-or-leave ambient album Somnus
– failed to properly establish themselves in the changing music world. At their worst they felt old fashioned, but at their best they were simply uninspired, with nothing to distinguish them as something exciting or maintain his appeal to rapidly evolving tastes.
All That Remains
arrives after two years of radio silence. Two years in which Phaeleh has, apparently, been “rekindling his love affair with music”. The EP represents a blueprint for Phaeleh releases in the coming years and a new palette of styles to replace those past their use-by date. As a result, it should be taken less like an EP and more like a promise: “this is a new era; here is what I will be making now”.
The album begins like it’s a promise Phaeleh intends to keep. The typical spaced-out atmospheric swells of “Mountain” soon give in to the thuds and clicks of a kick drum and something in the place of a hi-hat. Bringing his synth pads in on the offbeat, Phaeleh maintains momentum. His characteristically warm ambience channels through a house groove with all the effortlessness of someone aware the two scenes were never that far apart. The track grows to a relaxed and comfortable kind of excitement, and if Phaeleh is using this EP to gauge interest it should be made clear that more of the same would be grand.
Some of the EP is less successful. Phaeleh is obviously at his most comfortable with tracks like “Remember” and its murky, garage explorations will endear to long term fans, but it makes the same mistake as recent material in relying on already-plundered musical territory. In other words, “Remember” would have made a fantastic release five years ago (whispers of a modern day garage revival be damned). Similarly, the prettiness of piano-piece “Acceptance” is welcome yet a little too fluttering to hit home and, besides, is over almost as soon as it begins.
Phaeleh threatens to go a bit Nils Frahm on us with “Trails of Light”, but this part of the EP marks a return to his original promise. His classical manipulation and throbbing bass here, as well as the murky Earl Sweatshirt-ready space of the title track, create new possibilities for future material. If nothing else, they prove Phaeleh’s ability to hop over to new styles if he wants to. It’s just a question of finding them first.
While All That Remains
does not re-establish Phaeleh as a cultural force on its own, it re-opens the possibility. He proves himself capable of moving on to new territory but this mishmash of styles is just a taster for a future which may or may not materialise. Whether this is a spot of momentary experimentalism or a taste of things to come is yet to be decided, and it is up to Phaeleh to make good on his promise.