, October 6th, 2011 12:12
I'm old enough to remember the point in the mid-90s when music journalists at ostensibly rock oriented publications (NME,Melody Maker, Vox, Select; the ones that don't really exist anymore) started to try and grapple critically with the proliferation of people making borderline experimental dance music which threatened to, and in some cases spectacularly did, crossover to a rock/indie audience. Orbital, Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Future Sound Of London, Plaid, Mouse On Mars, Autechre, and others whose names escape me, were praised for their music but often criticised for being “faceless techno duos”, as if music journalists at the time couldn't quite get to grips with anyone whose career managed to exists sans a stylist.
Perhaps thanks to Aphex Twin's visual headfuckery and Boards Of Canada's outright lies regarding their provenance at the turn of the millenium, we've moved on a little now, and the fact that I have no idea what Alessio Natalizia and Sam Willis, who are the faceless techno duo known as Walls, look like, barely musters mention, let alone concern. I have no idea what Fuck Buttons look like either, or Nicolas Jaar, or The Field, or Luke Abbott, or… you get my drift. I might be able to pick Dan Snaith or Lindstrom out of a police line-up, but only just. In the internet age we'll happily write about your music and even interview you without needing a mugshot as accompaniment; as long as your music has some personality, you can be as faceless as you like.
The problem with Walls' eponymous debut album from last year is that it didn't quite have that requisite personality, at least not to my ears. Sure, it sounded nice enough, garnered good reviews, and I personally listened to it plenty, but it felt a little underdone, as if it was merely on the way to being a good record. Listening back to it now, in the light of Walls' new album Coracle, it seems like a collation of signifiers and ideas – a smidgeon of 4AD haze, a suggestion of Kompakt rhythms, a whiff of My Bloody Valentine guitars, an approximation of kosmische textures – lacking in substance, in tunes, in focus. The fact that its eight tracks came in at barely 29 minutes didn't help; there wasn't time for personality to emerge to ideas to be developed beyond signifiers.
But Coracle is a big improvement from there. The cover artwork, font, layout, and song titles may make it seem like exactly the same generic dreamy electronica (they're nothing if not consistent with visuals), but musically Willis and Natalizia have upped their game tremendously. ‘Into Our Midst' might be my favourite opening track of the year; certainly it's my favourite opening to an electronic record, emerging from nothingness, resting on a swaying, minimal pulse, and teasing your ears with sensual, breathy vocals that gently call to each other across the soundstage before evolving through a series of delicious oscillating phases, which introduce ideas to each other before easing each of them back out of the frame to leave nothing but the rhythm. It feels massively more sophisticated than anything from the debut.
Even when their music falls away to ambient nothingness, like on the pithily titled ‘Vacant', Walls seem more in control and mature, as if they have a reason and aim for doing so rather than just feeling as if they ought to because that's what people who make atmospheric electronic music do. Likewise ‘Ecstatic truth' reaches for its eponymous emotional territory in a way that the duo seemed unable to 12 months ago, a growing confidence allowing them to explore emotional territories as well as textural ones.
It now makes more sense that Walls are on Kompakt too; there's more groove here, more emphasis on rhythm and pulse driving the textures and combining with them to harvest emotional responses, than there was before; ‘Sunporch' feels like the kind of music that would make you feel superhuman if you played it whilst standing atop a cliff in Ibiza, soaking in the sun and the scale of the world. That Walls and The Field are labelmates feels right; there's a definite kinship between Coracle and Axel Willner.
There's a post on The Guardian's music blog this week about how Walls are toying with the idea of making music to be listened to in flotation tanks during relaxation therapies. As someone in his 30s with a growing list of muscular injuries brought about by cycling and shed-building, the idea of soothing my aching shoulders to something purposely composed by this duo, as opposed to whale-song or Enya, is delicious. Coracle is a perfect soundtrack to the hazy, misty-morninged Indian summer we're enjoying. Long may it continue.