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Awake Joe Clay , March 26th, 2014 08:45

Have you ever wondered what a Boards Of Canada remix of U2 would sound like? The Edge laying down some of his finest chiming, delay-heavy licks over a track by the Sandison bros? No? Me neither if I'm honest, but as 'Awake', the opening (and title) track from the fourth (third proper) album by the San Franciscan ambient/ electronic producer and graphic designer Scott Hansen, unfurls you can hear exactly that aforementioned sonic cocktail and it sounds – well, not as awful as you might imagine. In fact, give it time, a few listens, perhaps a stoned drive down windy country lanes on a gloriously sunny spring day, and to these ears it is approaching brilliance: an atmospheric guitar instrumental festooned with one those lush, woozy synth melodies that BOC could have retired on had they been able to trademark them.  

Of all the Boards Of Canada soundalikes that emerged in their wake, Hansen did it better than most. For starters, he writes great melodies; playful and cheerful, backed by intricate rhythms rooted in hip-hop. It helped that his day job as a graphic designer (as ISO50) meant that his music was accompanied by the same kind of colour-saturated, nostalgic visuals – Hipstamatic before it had a name – which BOC peddled so well. But it was always more than a pastiche. Granted, Tycho couldn't have existed without BOC, but that story has been repeated through the ages, and just because you wear your influences so blatantly, doesn't mean you can't wear them well. 

For Awake, Hansen has broadened his sonic palette, with the guitar that had started to infiltrate 2011's Dive to the fore, while also assembling a crack rhythm section to help realise his beefed-up musical vision. Zac Brown and Rory O'Connor are much more than just a competent bass/drums combo, with O'Connor equally adept at laying down a solid, four-to-the floor beat as he is more elaborate fills, while there is something of the Hooky about Brown's melodic, low-slung bass grooves.   

After the U2 v BOCisms of 'Awake' comes 'Montana', which opens, curiously, with a riff that echoes The Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant', but then develops into a more measured take on Ride's frenzied 'Grasshopper' – the epic instrumental jam on the B-side to 'Leave Them All Behind'; all galloping Loz-esque drum rolls, exhilarating riffing and a rumbling bassline a la Steve Queralt. The mellow pastoralism of 'Dye' is as close as you'll get to hearing what a Boards of Canada song would sound like when realised by a full band. 'See' ups the bpms with a pumping 4/4 groove adorned with proggy guitar flourishes, while 'Apogee' has a rolling breakbeat underpinning the whimsical synth melodies and is more in line with Tycho's previous oeuvre. 'Spectre' is Mogwai with the abrasive edges stripped away. That might make it sound anodyne and gutless, but it's actually not – it's euphoric and joyous, like M83 at his best. The album concludes with 'Plains', a gorgeously wispy, elemental guitar instrumental. If the first new musical fruits of the Slowdive reunion cooked up something like this, the shoegazers won't be complaining.

If the haters are gonna hate (and they will), their chief grumble will be that Awake is too nice, too safe, too tasteful, and it's hard to argue with this – most of the tracks would make suitable soundbeds for BBC natural history montages. But do you know what? That's actually OK. There are worse barbs to chuck at an album than that it would make a beautiful accompaniment to some breathtaking scenery. That it sounds a bit like U2 for starters – but in Hansen's skilled hands, even this is acceptable, especially because the listener is spared Bono bleating all over it.

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