Review Summary: Koan Sound put the "sound" in their name. This is one of the most compelling electronic albums of 2018.
Koan Sound have always been unpredictable when it comes to their music. Each release from the British electronic duo has them experimenting with different styles, from the retro-influenced Adventures of Mr. Fox to the more ethereal and orchestral qualities of Sanctuary with Asa. Despite all the experimentation, their top-notch sound production was apparent in all of their works along with a feel-good energy that was a direct antithesis to the dark electronic music scene at the time. However, their 2015 release Forbidden Myths ended a five year streak of consecutive EPs. Citing mental health problems, Will Weeks and Jim Bastow decided to take some time off in order to prepare themselves for their debut studio album. Now, after three years of dormancy, Koan Sound return to the spotlight with their debut LP Polychrome. While the album won't appeal to fans of their more expressive works, Polychrome is a mature and ambitious release that makes it a strong contender for AOTY of 2018.
Polychrome's main selling point is its abundance of detail that's evident throughout all eleven tracks. Not one second of its 55-minute runtime is wasted, with sounds endlessly evolving and mutating throughout each song. Arrangements are busy but not cluttered, and the duo make great use of stereo and reverb to create an immersive soundscape within each composition. Textures are a particular highlight within the album, with sound effects that leave the listener in a state of shock and awe, wondering how it was engineered. If sound design was the only criteria of a perfect album, then Koan Sound have achieved this in spades on Polychrome.
Genres constantly change as the album progresses, from the funk-influenced "Hustle Hammer" to more DnB-oriented tracks like "Drift". Despite this, the album is cohesive. There's clear ambient undertones within the album, with less emphasis on the element of suprise and moreso one of continuation. In fact, the album is less about the individual moments within each song and more about the experience when listened to as a single entity. Structured in a way where each section lines up perfectly with their previous EPs, Polychrome takes you through Koan Sound's career. Tracks such as "Viridian Dream" give off a Sanctuary vibe, while others like "Jongmyo" are more reminiscent of Dynasty. It showcases just how far Koan Sound have progressed since their Max Out EP in 2011, but it also gives glimpses of the future. "Virtual Light" is one such track that sees Koan Sound employ more traditional synths and glitch effects, while The Zulla is an explosion of playfulness.
Not everything is perfect though. Although the sound design is imamculate, there's a severe lack of hooks and memorable melodies. Because the textures constantly evolve and mutate, ideas don't have a lot of time to shine and they leave just as quickly as they enter. This is evident on "Hydroplane", a track where basslines and synths weave in and out following a DnB rhythm. The song shifts in direction multiple times throughout its course, but it's more an expression of musicality rather than creating something memorable. It feels like there's a lot going on, but not much happening. It's a sentiment that materializes itself across many other tracks on the album.
With the release of Polychrome, Koan Sound have paid homage to their past, wrapping up their entire career in a 55-minute package. It's a towering accomplishment that showcases Koan Sound at their best, and is a must-listen for old fans and newcomers alike.