Martyn - The Air Between Words

Martyn runs out of disguises in his third full length release.

Additional Info

6.2

ALBUM: The Air Between Words

ARTIST: Martyn

2014

Electronic

Dutch producer and DJ, Martijn Deijkers (better known as Martyn), has at times been thought of as a genre chameleon, with each release activating a change in pigment relative to the various scenes he passes through. In a sense, this is true: Martyn’s productions borrow from the soundbanks of the musical niches he inhabits; yet, Martyn does much more than blend into the background, and his music, in its forward-looking application of these tropes, frequently outdoes the works of producers confined within genric walls. His last two full-length releases are evidence of this, whether in Great Lengths (2009), whose wax-textured synths and intelligent percussions carved out fresh spaces for a seemingly fully-fledged dubstep scene, or the breakbeat experimentation of his Brainfeeder release, Ghost People (2011), that approached the dancefloor with an odd mixture of expertise and idiosyncrasy. To be clear, Martyn switched from label to label, sound to sound, but this is perhaps a product of his history, where Deijkers broke into the scene as a drum ‘n’ bass DJ, but has also tried his hand at Chicago house and Detroit techno. It is therefore no wonder that Martyn pulls from his expansive knowledge of dance music to construct his own art, enduing a classic sonic quality that sometimes deceives listeners into overlooking its innovative composition.

However, there will be less confusion over his latest LP, The Air Between Words, released on London label Ninja Tune. In it, Martyn doesn’t engage with any particular genre, but instead draws from the full breadth of his versatile production experience. Thus, while UK rave elements are strewn throughout—from Martyn’s garage-inflected rhythms, to warping dubbed-out bass sounds that groove the record, and electrified vocal samples layered in between—these influences do not wholly sum up the album. Even the 4/4 house patterns and tempo that The Air Between Words adheres to provides no clear indication of the Dutchman’s intent, and the entire affair is, rather, a mixed bag. For instance, only on this record would highly-sexualized club-banger “Like That” be followed by “Lullaby”, that sounds almost like an instrumental grime ode to indie-pop musician tUnE-yArDs. This mimicry, though more erratic than in prior efforts, suggests that Martyn hasn’t entirely shed his chameleonic tendencies; nevertheless, something distinctly Martyn still transpires.

For one thing, his melodic direction is more apparent in this album, and frequently, The Air Between Words will rely on vintage piano or string sounds—that aren’t washed out in effects or subject to electronic tampering—to provide harmonic motion and forward progression. While Martyn’s harmonic intuition has never been in doubt, tunes like “Fashion Skater” and “Love of Pleasure” (with Hype Williams’ vocalist Inga Copeland) showcase a more expressive side to his peculiar emotional spectrum that listeners have not previously been privy to. Martyn still does draw heavily from dance music, but the LP doesn’t depend solely on sound-engineering or club music theatrics. Instead, the album is laden with slow, melding transitions, absorbing UK rave into more organic forms in which musical ideas juxtapose rather than collapse at every drop. “Glassbeadgames”, the album’s other collaboration with London beatmaker Four Tet, demonstrates this effect early on: moments of brilliance arising from the gradual penetration of the main vocal sample.

Admittedly, the album isn’t always as pretty as the aforementioned tracks, and it is telling that the two collaborations stick in the memory better than most of the solo tracks. Even as The Air Between Words may be Martyn’s most artistic work, insofar as it makes the listener aware of its composition as art, the album doesn’t always manage to keep the listener’s attention—and the tracks lose the urgency perfected by club music by doing away with its structures. Indeed, the jazz-injected “Drones” is maddeningly aimless, whereas the gaseous tones at the end of “Two Leads And A Computer” startles like cold water after so many minutes of static loops. Occasionally, Martyn uses tedium to his advantage, with longer build-ups leading to greater releases. But more often than not, the wait is too long, and the rewards for patience too small.

The Air Between Words may not seem intimate, and it takes some time for tracks to get sweet, but the album offers a curious look at Martyn without as much camouflage. Although he cannot help but reference the dance genres by which he learned his trade, it is Martyn himself that the album coheres around: his particular method of composing, his anachronistic touch, his keen sense of harmony. It is as personal as the Dutchman gets, avoiding the party-personalities of club music and the mystical airs of more dramatic musicians altogether, and finding some strange mask of his own.

“Without the music being introspective, this is my most natural sounding album.”

1. Forgiveness Step 1
The opening track is august, with Martyn painting a picture above shimmering keys using natural found sounds and digital disintegration. Slowly, other instruments fill in: lumbering bass, synth-strings, and vocals all luring the listener deeper into the pastures of Martyn’s world. Beautifully-rendered, “Forgiveness Step 1” tugs at the heart-strings while still retaining a dramatic air of mystery, and one feels as if the curtains are slowly starting to rise.8.5
2. Glassbeadgames
“Glassbeadgames” starts with rippling water droplets and ends in some languid club, where hazy pads obscure the beat that loops throughout. In between, Four Tet and Martyn melt through different scenes in an artful, meditative manner, mixing them together with a shrill, piercing vocal sample. Whilst it seems evident where Four Tet ends and Martyn begins (the former on the idiophones and percussions, and the latter sampling the vocals and keys), their respective timbres and structural devices are actually quite complementary and the piece does not end up disjointed by the clear division. Still, “Glassbeadgames” fails to live up to the promise of their combined force, despite being one of the more interesting tracks on The Air Between Words.7.0
3. Empty Mind
The song enters more familiar 4/4 kick-hihat-snare territory, nodding to old school UK Funky with its squelchy bassline. Variation here arrives in the form of paranoid synths and cut-off vocal-stabs, that alternate with the spoken word sample: “if the human mind is empty…anything could develop.” While danceable, the track definitely empties the mind for a bit before icy, high-frequency sounds provide some content to relieve your numbed skull.6.5
4. Drones
Martyn draws absentminded lines with a jazzy piano, softening the track’s chugging bass kicks, off-kilter hihats, and occasional congas. However, rather than reconcile the two genres, jazz melodies and tribal percussion distract from one another in “Drones”, unsure of which should take the spotlight. Eventually, mid-frequency dubstep wobbles ensure that neither does, but the whole thing makes for a tough listen due to its nonsensical discordance and lack of direction.4.0
5. Love of Pleasure
A beating old school bass and clean piano chords serve as the main accompaniment to Copeland’s voice, that wafts through old radio-frequencies: simultaneously ghostly and majestic. Reminiscent of Little Dragon at times, “Love of Pleasure” is easily the most accessible song on the album, owing much to the wistful quality that Copeland adds to Martyn’s sometimes robotic nature—though his chordwork supplies plenty of emotional material. The song strays near ‘catchy’ with a bumping deep bass, but stays at the right distance to maintain its dreamy nostalgic atmosphere.8.0
6. Two Leads and a Computer
This track rides on a rubbery bassline, twisting and sliding to mischievous effect. All the while, jittery percussions and gunshot snares lacerate the ears, allowing the bass to snake through its rigid grid. But while Martyn might animate his “Two Leads and a Computer”, the end-result still feels mechanical—and even the turn-of-events set off by Martyn’s ethereal outro-chords feels contrived and recycled.5.5
7. Forgiveness Step 2
“Forgiveness Step 2” traces a familiar contour (from stripped down rhythm-and-bass to rich sound caverns), but manages to avoid faltering in the same way that “Two Leads and a Computer” does. This is in part due to the use of more traditional dancefloor structure, where one re-enters the club after being lost in Martyn’s other digital fantasies. Here, thumping four-on-the-floor kicks pick up the pace, bumping the listener around with punchy metallic stabs before the overture’s vocal sample returns, buzzing with excitement for “tonight”. As usual, breathier substances filter through at the end, but they are appropriately atmospheric and bring listeners to a novel conclusion.7.5
8. Like That
Continuing where the last track left off, “Like That” finds Martyn in the club—now at the grittier hours nearer dawn, where dancers zone out to rattling sub bass, a steady beat, and reiterative vocals. Pornographic vocal samples underscore this late night appeal, commanding the listener to keep doing it just “like that” with a sexed up voice that sometimes orgasms. Otherwise, bass and piano prance around menacingly, making for a truly naughty tune.8.0
9. Lullaby
Even as Martyn pays homage to old school instrumental grime with quick-fire claps and computerized zen-garden synths, the resultant sound is bizarrely akin to indie-pop scenery. The change in tempo and beat structure (that eschews house rhythms for once) is definitely welcome though, and the song’s shorter length leaves the listener wanting more, which is all too rare on The Air Between Words.7.0
10. Fashion Skater
Even as 4/4 rhythms make a return in “Fashion Skater”, the last track has grander intentions than the other house tempo tunes, and captures Martyn at all his good angles: multigenre synthesis, earnest piano work, and a drawn-out tension-release scheme all knit together seamlessly. In particular, the way that “Fashion Skater” develops is beautiful to behold, unfolding rolling pianos and poignant strings that compensates for all the emotion left out of the album’s more automatic tracks.8.5
Written by Justin Kwok
Justin Kwok is a Media Studies major at UC Berkeley, but daydreams of being an instrumentalist in some electronic duo. He enjoys deep bass music and psychedelia.



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