Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 77)

Reviews originally published in Issue 77 of Electronic Sound magazine, May 2021:

Bliss Land

(Castles In Space)

It’s been the most ironic contradiction of the last twelve months. Where to find stillness in a world that has ceased to move forward? Even in the enforced seclusion of lockdown, life has been a hurly-burly waltzer ride of emotions: thwarted ambitions, ruined relationships, and – for the truly unfortunate – an overwhelming sense of tragedy and grief. We pressed the pause button on life, but there’s no pausing the sometimes overwhelming experience of simply being human. Bliss Land, the third album by Brighton singer-songwriter Hattie Cooke, is perhaps the perfect distillation of that paradox. An opus where intensely personal confessions bubble beneath a veneer of glacial, synth-pop sang-froid.  “It’s about that liminal space between the past and the future, when you’re on the threshold of something” says Cooke herself. She’s describing one track in particular, the tentative ‘One Foot Out The Door’, but it’s a maxim that works perfectly for the whole album. This is a collection that could only be borne from the global limbo between pre and post-Covid existence. Opener ‘I Get By’ is an immaculate evocation of the silent, traffic-free void of early lockdown. “I go for a walk / I wait until it’s late, wait until it’s quiet,” she sings, with studied indifference. “The whole world’s sitting still, like summer days upon on the hill”. There’s a zen quality to her lyrics: minimal and intuitive, they arrive like soporific cruise missiles. Concentrated torpor, delivered with devastating accuracy.

It feels like a breakthrough album. Cooke’s self-titled 2016 debut added thrift store synths to the impassioned strumming and vulnerable vocals of the traditional acoustic singer-songwriter. Winsome and reflective, it reeked of coffee shop gigs and soul-destroying pub backrooms. The Sleepers, from 2019, was a curveball: an instrumental electronic soundtrack to an imagined movie, the dystopian tale of – wait for it – a global pandemic tangled up in sinister conspiracy theories. Bliss Land, impressively, is a natural marriage of the two. Cooke has honed her ice-cold, cinematic soundscapes into economic shards of pop: only one track here exceeds the four-minute mark, and all but the instrumental ‘Fantasies’ are topped by vocals that are unmistakeably more mature than on that endearingly lo-fi debut.

Ah yes, that old bugbear. Maturity. “To tell the truth, I miss my youth / Those long-lost days I cling to,” she sings with an audible sigh on ‘Youth’. “Go and get drunk / Falling in love with everyone I talk to”. It’s the timeless lament of the freshly-turned thirtysomething, helpless as the blissful wreckage of adolescence drifts silently away. But it’s given an extra frisson by the stasis of early 2021: Cooke turned 30 in January this year. And what’s the point of being on that aforementioned threshold when there’s currently nothing on the other side? With nowhere to turn, she looks inward and picks over the bones of failed relationships. “Couldn’t keep each other apart / Now I won’t even walk past your door,” she sings wistfully on ‘Lovers Games’.

There’s a contemporary sheen to the music, a stainless steel sparkle that never quite masks the influences of her upbringing. Growing up on a 1990s Sussex council estate with a vinyl-obsessed father, the dwindling synth-pop of the previous decade clearly seeped into her subconscious. ‘Cars’ boasts chiming guitars and a wash of synths, like Furniture doing battle with the Cocteau Twins; ‘Invisible Lines’ carries faint echoes of early Human League. But these are no retro affectations. She’s not one of the geeky boys, tinkering with vintage patches to get the perfect Korg 700 sound. Like the lyrics, it’s instinctive and economic, and the polished shimmer never detracts from the personal confessions housed within. Still, if she wants mainstream success, she might just find it: at least half the tracks here have daytime 6 Music written all over them.

“I know I should be doing something different,” she sings on ‘Summer Time’, an album closer steeped in heartbreaking poignancy. “I spend my days walking round town / A glass of red in the afternoon to wash my medication down”. To paraphrase Alan Bennett: she’s not happy, but she’s not unhappy about that. And in that, perhaps, she actually finds that stillness. It’s a moment that offers reassurance to those of us who feel similarly marooned, and maybe that’s the best that any of us can really hope for. Brighter days, one hopes, will come for us all. And not least, perhaps, for Hattie Cooke. The sleeve of Bliss Land shows her hovering nervously beside a symbolically open door, and this hugely accomplished album suggests her own personal threshold is waiting patiently to be crossed.  

Album available here.

Legend Of Lizard Lake
(Library Of The Occult)

Holidaying in Spain with his grandparents at the turn of the millennium, the young Tom McDowell discovered a bookshop groaning with battered Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. From there his imagination ran riot, vacating the expat haven of Alicante for worlds populated by terrifying, outlandish beasties and goblets filled with noxious potions. Which, admittedly, might not seem like much of a departure.

Nevertheless, he’s distilled these memories into an album brimming with fantastical delights. Label boss McDowell is an old hand at evoking the textures and melodies of vintage Hammer Horror, and the likes of ‘Church of the Lizard Folk’ and ‘Spiral Of Lost Souls’ spill over with vamped-up church organs and mellotrons. It’s all a bit prog, all a bit straight-to-VHS 1980s fantasy, and great fun throughout. If you want to embark on the ‘Mystic Quest’, turn to Track 3. If you’re more interested in ‘Gathan’s Revival’, turn to Track 6. Otherwise, just immerse yourself in the whole giddy escapade in one fell swoop.

Album available here.

Black Water
(Castles In Space)

What’s that rising from the murky depths? Why, a perfectly-formed synth homage to the Loch Ness Monster, of course. And, in particular, that peculiarly 1970s obsession with claiming this elusive beastie in the name of science. Scottish producer RJ McConnell uses every analogue trick in the book to evoke an era when whiskery marine biologists in kipper ties would speak earnestly to Nationwide viewers about the latest blurry photographs of distant humps and flippers.

Opening track ‘The Black Loch’ sets the tone perfectly, with the kind of sinister Radiophonic swoops and swirls that once made Tom Baker glance nervously over his shoulder. ‘Sonar Sweep’ and ‘Strange Readings’ add the ominous bleeps and rhythms of anomalous results on flickering monitors, and ‘Something In The Murk’ completes the descent into full-on vintage Doctor Who-style terror. An affecting follow-up to January’s collection The Vale, it’s an album likely to rekindle troublesome childhood memories of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Album available here.

Blistered And Patched
(Wormhole World)

Jagged guitars, tootling chord organs, spectral voices and the white noise crackle of untuned radios. The windswept weirdness of the Cleveland Hills infuses this darkly affecting sixth album by North East-based Bristolian Marcus H, but it’s a journey into his tangled mindset, too. ‘100 Souls Whispers’ is the recreation of imaginary childhood voices in his head, ‘Itching Stone Twitching Stone’ the sound of a haunted wireless once owned by his sister. Eschewing bombast for creeping disquiet, it’s a gently unsettling triumph.

Album available here.

(Woodford Halse)

The Mandragora plant is both toxic and therapeutic, its hallucinogenic properties attracting a tangle of mysticism. And this beat-driven album by London-based producer Klee brings suitably dream-like qualities to memories of his family’s lockdown rambles. Recalling “thin muddy paths wending their way, determined, to the wide expanse of brother Thames”, he creates a soundscape that is equally purposeful. ‘As Evening Falls’ combines crepuscular synths with resolute rhythms, ‘Phantom Energy’ hums with the magic of the night-time, and the closing title track is a throbbing mass of electronic psychedelia.

Album available here.

Warminster UFO Club
(Castles In Space)

As Britain descended into 1960s psychedelia, the unsuspecting Wiltshire town of Warminster became a hotbed of UFO sightings. Firing the imagination of Glaswegian schoolboy Drew Mulholland, who – 30 years later – collaborated with Portishead’s Adrian Utley on Warminster, a captivating 21-minute opus of hypnotic beats and throbbing radiophonics. The track is reissued here alongside a welter of considerably darker new recordings by Mulholland. ‘The Incident At Five Ash Lane’ sets the tone, with fragmented eyewitness accounts woven into fractured sound collages and expertly manipulated field recordings. A chilling evocation of delicious period weirdness.

Album available here.