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Mart Avi
Vega Never Sets Richard Foster , December 2nd, 2020 09:21

Another spellbinding modern soul-pop record from Estonian Mart Avi, perhaps his most sensuous yet, finds Richard Foster

Sometimes it's helpful to understand an artist by spending some time with them. In the summer of last year, this is precisely what I did, holed up in an old Estonian hunting hut with Mart Avi, on the shores of the 5th largest lake in Europe, Peipsi, in a region that Avi’s family hail from.

Mart Avi often spends the summer in this semi-wild place to write and ponder his next move. The wider area is an intriguing one: 1960s Soviet-era planned villages vie for attention with remnants of neolithic earthworks, the Kingdom of the Ants, a miniature Balmoral castle and True Believer Russian Orthodox villages. Russian air traffic signals regularly block out the hit-tastic Estonian radio. If you’re lucky and dodge the packs of roaming dogs, you can see sea eagles and Saturn. With nothing but a cat, some old books and a laptop, Avi yearly schemes up new musical blueprints.

Rather than plan a triple album devoted to woodcutting, Avi has delivered yet another spellbinding modern soul-pop record, a heartbeat and yet a thousand miles away from things created in more populous areas. It’s probably his most sensual release, so smooth and shady that you could slip on it, and probably his wildest; though that only becomes apparent after a few plays.

This is a record of romance. Maybe better known for making spiky, intelligent and mysterious LPs, Vega Never Sets documents Mart Avi at his most puckish. This change had been coming. His last release, Other Worlds showed flashes of his deep-held love of modern soul and dance music but with Vega..., we rarely feel the chilly counterpoint of the intellect. The gloriously horizontal ‘Soul ReaVer’ is to all intents and purposes a cocktail party in a hot air balloon, the weightlessness helped in part by regular injections from cylinders marked Essence of Ferry.

There are some gloriously steamy passages. Music to frug to on pile carpets. The opening track ‘Feather’ is, appropriately enough, the first chance to indulge in a smoochy last dance, the synth stabs veering unsteadily between some outrageous “George and Andy” soft focus romp and hot buttered soul from an old Stax cut. With this and the equally squelchy ‘Firefly’, you can visualise gobbets of vaseline slowly dripping down smartphone screens. The dizzying ‘Spark’ is the most high gloss and uptempo track on the record and gives us another view on Cupid’s Chambers. The busy, spanking parlour beats again suggest late 80s George Michael or even Stars-era Simply Red. It’s the sort of sass that is bottled and served up in a provincial restaurant and all the more powerful for it. Served by a man in a spacesuit.

This doesn’t make what Mart Avi does or creates any less mysterious or ingenious. For one, the cosmos and what’s beyond it plays an increasingly important part in Avi’s musical mythology. Calling your LP Vega Never Sets is no accidental marker. His music invites us to look up and dream. In that, Avi’s world is also similar to those of Julian Cope or Sun Ra: a creation of another space, using topographies close to hand. And his omnivorous vision steals elements from anywhere: such as 1990s Dutch children's TV, dystopian literature, the current craze for scale modeling, photocopy art and the smoother end of RnB. The short interlude ‘Endsville’, for example, could be a soundscape for a future wargame set in a deserted city; the sort of nowhere-somewhere music that Mark Fisher would ascribe to Burial and Joy Division.

There is a knowingness about the light-fingered nature of modern pop music too, a trait that’s not really fussed about hiding in plain sight. The listener is, in any case, invited to reassemble matters as they wish. A track like the ‘Avirex’ is essentially The Blue Nile with a homogeneous, digital beat. And ‘Milton’ may be Avi paraphrasing Paradise Lost but it also sounds like a glove thrown down to the likes of Boards Of Canada or Barry Adamson. It’s a case of questioning who should map out the musical future.

Modern pop music is slowly developing a new liturgy, picking over the shattered remains of the past. Here, in this emerging landscape, new and forward-thinking pop artists the world over pick through styles to suit their whims, as scrap hunters do through a box of oddments from a house clearing. You could mention the likes of Black Country, New Road, Nadine Shah, Crack Cloud, Global Charming, Inturist, Lone Taxidermist, KMRU, and Avi himself. Each takes elements of their personal landscapes to burnish what they find and make music of the now. Avi’s take is at once rooted in a modern, increasingly polyphonic Estonia and from a parallel galaxy of his imagination. Certainly, Vega Never Sets counters the trope that Estonian musicians live in some enchanted pixieland, only communing with stars and forebears. Yet his music couldn’t have been forged anywhere else. And we are lucky to have it, to explore further with it.