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Sinjin Hawke
First Opus Ben Cardew , May 11th, 2017 12:03

There’s something thrilling about musicians who go beyond sound to create their own aesthetic universe; musicians who cushion themselves in culture and stylistic choices to the extent where you know, or could make a pretty good guess at, their favourite books, films, fashion choices and holiday destinations. Kraftwerk have it; The Smiths had it; Wu-Tang Clan once had it and Björk definitely has it.

Sinjin Hawke and his Fractal Fantasy partner Zora Jones have it too. The duo wrap their music in hyperreal digital art and darkly sci-fi videos, release it via their own Fractal Fantasy “platform” and even wear their own clothes, designed and made by former fashion student Jones. Their’s is a world of technological utopianism and restless, often self-taught, creativity; a world of near infinite possibility where technology will liberate us from the drudgery of the day to day rather than wrap us up in Facebook bubbles.

The duo’s music is equally distinctive and forward-looking, taking hints from grime, trap, ballroom, dancehall and footwork but never really turning out like any of them. Take a list of the artists they have worked with - from Kanye West (Hawke produced ‘Wolves’ with Cashmere Cat) to MikeQ to Scratcha DVA - draw a line between them and you will get an idea of where Fractal Fantasy are coming from. But you’re still not really close.

Hawke’s debut album First Opus follows on from the collaborative Visceral Minds compilation in 2015, Jones’ 100 Ladies EP and ‘Ruby Fifths’ single, as well as several DJ mixes. If you have heard these you will recognise some of the key Fractal Fantasy traits on First Opus, in particular the shining humanoid beauty of the duo’s signature sound, a kind of half choir, half synth, impossible choral swoop that brings to mind an alien acapella orchestra (a version of which also appears on ‘Wolves’).

But First Opus not only moves the Fractal Fantasy sound forward, it also amplifies it to bombastic extremes. It is significant that the first sound on the album is of an orchestra tuning up: this is music for Dolby Surround 7.1 and huge sound systems rather than janky computer speakers. Long in the making - the album has its origins in experiments dreamed up while Hawke was working on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo - First Opus is a statement release. In producing his debut Hawke eschewed the usual round of featured artists to “give the world 100% of himself and not dilute the expression”, as Jones explains it.

The result is a genuinely remarkable record, one that mixes weaponised orchestral bombast with ornate choral arrangements, virtuosic bouts of sound design, bleeding-edge club sounds and 70s soundtrack funk. Hawke has compared the album to a late romantic symphony, albeit one influenced by experimental club utility, and - remarkably - this claim stands up.

Take ‘Onset’, the first track to be released from the album: it kicks off with the kind of strident, serrated bass riff that Hudson Mohawke specialises in, only here it is played by what sounds like a French horn, with proceedings interrupted by a juddering trap beat, choral stabs and a synth melody that veers around like an angry, bewildered bee. The result is like TNGHT’s ‘R U Ready’ forcing itself on the London Symphony Orchestra to soundtrack the new Star Wars.

This frenzied mixing of genres is an album hallmark. The brilliant ‘Dawn Of Infinity’ introduces the sound of a barbershop quintet to Earth, Wind & Fire-esque funk stabs and a bass drum that slaps like granite, creating a kind of alternate universe 70s funk; ‘They Can’t Love You’, which follows, throws harps, chipmunk rave vocals and a dancehall beat akin to Lenky’s ‘Diwali Riddim' into a mix that is entertaining as it is head-spinning.

Musical genres aren’t the only thing to get mixed up here: Hawke is a master of blending the rough with the smooth, hammer-hard club beats with moments of lunar serenity, often within the same song. ‘Nailgun’ is a prime example, alternating steely marching drums with a weirdly swirling beat that feels like running down a staircase as it dissolves underneath you, while ‘Flood Gates’ showcases the producer’s skill with the anti drop, building from twinkling keys to impossibly exciting orchestral stabs, only for Hawke to pull the song back to celestial ambience where other producers might jump to the climax.

For all the album’s lofty ambitions and cerebral genre experimentations, however, it never feels overly obscure or a dripping in experimentation for experimentation’s sake. You could dance to a great deal of the music here and for every unearthly sound or speaker-breaking pulse there is an ear-worm melody that could grace an ambitious pop record, such as the graceful vocal trill on opener ‘Monolith (Overture)’ or the stirring string and voice combination that opens ‘Snow Blind’. There’s emotion too: ‘Divination’ features the joyous release of a gospel choir in full flow, while closing track ‘In Loving Memory’, which is dedicated to Fractal Fantasy collaborator DJ Rashad, feels like catharsis in motion.

First Opus, then, is a brilliant record, one that is wildly ambitious yet hugely personal; boundary pushing but full of simple thrills; cerebral yet eminently danceable. More than that, it is an entry point into the Fractal Fantasy world of technological liberation and visionary possibility; and all the more so on the accompanying visual album, which pairs First Opus’ 14 tracks with jaw-dropping 360-degree environments, which shimmer and ripple in response to the music or your cursor’s touch. Such visceral escapism is apt: First Opus is - in the very nicest way - an invitation to get lost.