ALBUM: Wysing Forest
ARTIST: Luke Abbott
Let’s get this out of the way: Luke Abbott and James Holden share some serious similarities. They’re both Englishmen producing improvisational, experimental pastoral soundscapes on modular synthesizers, often drawing as much from the motorik rhythms of krautrock as from the propulsive energy of techno, and both release their music via Border Community (Holden’s actually the label boss). As such, it seems that it’s become impossible to write about one without mentioning the other; or rather, more accurately, following the release of their sophomore full-lengths, Abbott’s been tragically miscast as the poor man’s Holden. While many critics held up the latter’s (admittedly masterful) 2013 LP The Inheritors as a feral, pagan attack on the boundaries of the dancefloor, Wysing Forest has been somewhat written off as a gauzier, meandering take on the sound, prone to digression and less forcefully composed. The comparison certainly does get the point across—if you’re already familiar with Holden’s work, you probably have a pretty good sense of what Wysing Forest sounds like from just this first paragraph. However, that contrast also masks Abbott’s development into a unique voice in the world of experimental electronic music, with his own sonic reference points and influences.
The clearest distinction between the two probably comes in their relationship to the dancefloor. Since dropping that remix a decade ago, Holden’s always had an eye toward the club, no matter how skewed his glance may be. Even when he lets improvisation take hold, a sense of nearly religious function remains in the background: he wants you to dance. As an ultimate confirmation of that, when he tapped Dan Snaith’s Daphni alias for an edit of “Renata” last year, it resulted in one of 2013’s best remixes not because of Snaith alone, but because the source material was already so damn clever. Abbott doesn’t necessarily throw all that out, but as he discussed in a recent THUMP interview, he doesn’t DJ, so making crowd-pleasing bangers isn’t his top priority (after all, his first record, Holkham Drones, had the word “drone” in the title). The club still exists somewhere adjacent to his fuzzy, twisted universe, but he just doesn’t pay much attention to it. When he does, like on album highlight “Free Migration,” he shows a deft hand at making tracks that could tickle your headphone-encased eardrums as much as they could gleefully whip a crowd into a frenzy. However, he does just as well tossing around queasy, humid drones like on the 12-minute colossus (and lead single) “Amphis”, which slowly lurches into a big kraut-y mess.
All this makes sense given Abbott’s chosen style of composition via modular synthesis and improvisation. The whole album was recorded via live takes during a residency at the Wysing Arts Centre in Norwich, England back in 2012. Computer editing was minimal, consisting only of rearrangement and equalization. That’s pretty impressive given the scope and consistency of the compositions here. Even in the short clip he made for FACT’s Against the Clock series, his choices seem to have a unity of purpose that separates him from most other hobbyist analogue knob-twiddlers. Take “Highrise” for instance: the main melody, carried by a disintegrating synth, interlocks with shuffling percussion to form a winding, hypnotic whole. He occasionally falls into the trap of just having fun with the sheer sonic beauty of these little circuit boxes, like in opener “Two Degrees” or the closing bass blowout of “Tree Spirit”, but the results are always intriguing, lulling the listener in gently. “Snippet” even shows off a solid sense of humor with its one-minute aural assault that sounds like something Untold might churn out, coming right before the eight-minute ambient reprise of “Amphis” that closes the record.
In an interview with The Line of Best Fit, Abbott explicitly talks about his desire to make something that’s much more than an exercise in sound design. Citing influences like the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, it seems clear that his intention is to become a master of improvisation—insofar as that’s possible. He’s also said that the sweet tones of New Age music were an influence on the record, a point made quite clear by the glacial pads on nearly every track, putting him in a class with fellow New Age enthusiasts like Dolphins Into the Future, the Emeralds collective, or even Maxmillion Dunbar and the rest of the Future Times crew. Somewhere in the family tree of Cluster and Boards of Canada, Abbott’s skill for letting texture rather than rhythm lead the way has resulted in one of the most pleasant, woozy listening experiences you’ll have all year.
Despite all this, there’s something crucial to be said about this record in comparison to The Inheritors. Abbott’s improvisational experiments that he performed at an art residency indeed sound like experiments performed at a residency: exploratory but hesitant. Perhaps it’s just the rockist in me who wants a record that makes a unified “statement,” but given the fact that his peer Holden handed us such a record last year, it seems like fair criticism. That said, it’s also clear that this particular form of songwriting is one that will likely grow better with age; as Abbott gets more comfortable with his technique and his equipment, his ambition can only grow. The mind-warping textures of this album merely signal how far he could take this. For all we know, he has the modular Music Has the Right to Children just waiting in the wings.
“I gave up on trying to write music. I just played around and what came out was what came out.”