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Album Of The Week

Author Functions: Im Hole By Aya Is Our Album Of The Week
Jaša Bužinel , October 21st, 2021 08:46

On her deeply personal debut, aya opens up the portal to her inner sanctum like a singer-songwriter while pushing the envelope of avant-garde dance music

Photo: Dorothy Dee

On aya's debut album for Hyperdub, vocals represent a flexible musical tool. Through her poetry, she conveys concrete images and succulent metaphors ("burned by the yearn I roll a rock frontside"), and by using electrifying vocal modulations, she provokes various effects, both alienating and sublime. I experience her extended cyborgian voice as the kind of shiver-inducing vocal psychedelia Kit Mackintosh describes in his recent book Neon Screams. It has a post-humanist dimension as if produced through a robotic larynx with prosthetic vocal cords (the track title 'OoB Prosthesis' – short for 'out of body' – points in this direction). But it is also about phonetics, inflections, rhymes, wordplay, and alliterations ("A sharp scratch and we start with the scalp"). Her language is full of unexpected turns.

Listening to vocals tracks, like the sombre earworm 'what if i should fall asleep and slipp under' or self-described ASMR drill of 'Emley lights us moor', my mind constantly shifts focus. There are the vapour trails left by the voice(s), perpetually varying in pitch, depth, and texture, like those DeepDream videos, and the multidimensional productions floating in the background – HD sonic tapestries interwoven with crumbs of sound, subtle nuances of timbre, and dramatic synth pyrotechnics that feel out of joint. A true sonic contortionist, UK producer Aya Sinclair – formerly known as LOFT – is always looking for new ways to squeeze sound into unknown forms. A trans-identifying London-via-Manchester trailblazer known for her shape-shifting artistry and technical dexterity, she's garnered a reputation for her syncretistic aesthetic, crunchy sound design and brain-melting arrangements, backed by her Northern humour and bantering tone. The architecture of her productions is hard to grasp as she somehow manages to translate the heady vibe of slugging J Dilla beats into FWD-thinking dance music. In the jerky 'dis yacky', the shuffling polyrhythms and 8-bit bleeps give the impression that her grooves are about to collapse, yet you somehow manage to get locked inside.

I cannot help but compare im hole to Laurie Anderson's groundbreaking debut Big Science. Not stylistically, of course, but for its distinct aura, use of mutative digital effects on the vocals, linguistic and musical deconstructions, complexity and contemporaneity. "Hello, everyone, and welcome to the show," aya greets us in the overture with its eerily processed chants and anxiety-inducing electroacoustic cello feedback reminiscent of Krzysztof Penderecki. A similarly cinematic vibe defines the track 'still i taste the air', an episode describing an intimate experience with "him" in which she proclaims, "one night's enough to know where's roots."

im hole is as much about advanced sound synthesis as it is about self-revealing lyricism that sheds light on her trans experience, as well as reflecting on the whole notion of queer art. My experience of the album is very emotional, even voyeuristic, like a sonic diary with the most private entries reflecting on aya's personal struggles ("It's been four years now / I've been trading places / Evading faces / Saving graces / Elegiac susurrations bubble up / But if we grip we set the pace") presented in an excitingly futuristic sonic environment. 

It may come across as braindance for the Web 3.0 generation, but the immediate reaction is physical, prompting an urge for body twists and breakneck moves. One of the centrepieces of the record, 'the only solution i have found is to simply jump higher', comes across like a manifesto. Riding on arpeggiated, trancey stabs, hyper-synthetic, kalimba-like synths, explosions of static, and eccentric humanoid utterances, it is one of those meditative peak-time head-turners. Disorienting and all-absorbing, there are not many existing coordinates in dance music to help us move around in aya's artificial soundscapes. Those who have come to love her deconstructed bangers and cheeky edits released as LOFT might find her new direction a tad too serious, even highbrow, but underneath the apparently more scholarly approach to music-making she retains her own sense of detached irony.

In the early '90s, a quarter-century after Roland Barthes famously proclaimed 'the death of the author', we witnessed a process of dissociation between dance music producers and their music. Anonymity prevailed over the charisma-driven charm of disco and house. The development of the information superhighway and influence of new cyber-aesthetics prompted this trend. Producers became part of the collective body – a single mechanical joint of the separate techno, hardcore and jungle machines. Artists would hide behind various monikers, exchanging different masks on a whim, and the notion of a pop star as a complete artist who might branch out into poetry, film or painting, as part of a single project unified behind a proper name à la Nick Cave, Madonna or Beyoncé, sounded almost blasphemous.

This pattern would be reproduced well into the '00s on the dubstep scene, but in the past few years new voices have emerged, particularly in the realm of deconstructed club music (though aya herself is not a fan of this term) where many non-binary, trans and POC producers found a platform for personal and political self-expression through their lyrics. The decision to step out of anonymity, grab the mic, and reclaim all the glamour and glitter of dance music innovators – as in the case of SOPHIE – has had an immensely positive impact on the whole dance music ecosystem, which too long has been a lads' paradise.   

A vital aspect of these new club aesthetics, blending the hardcore continuum, footwork, trap, global club sounds and saccharine pop while pissing off techno lads for their mischievous inclinations, has been the re-centring of the voice. And there are not that many recent records comparable to im hole. Those who saw aya play in a club will know that her voice has always been essential to her performances as equal parts DJ and MC. Like a junglist radio pirate, she uses it as a glue connecting the dots between performer, audience and music.

But it would be a mistake to place aya in the pantheon of quasi-anonymous nightclub shamen like Goldie or Aphex Twin. In the 1960s, she would have been a singer-songwriter, and earnest types in rollneck sweaters would have anguished over the hidden meaning of her lyrics in left bank cafés. In the 1980s, she would have been a media artist, making avant pop and surreal self-directed video-operas. Today, the ability of cheap DAW technology to create complex electronic environments has enabled a new breed of singer-producer for whom the marriage of club aesthetics, avant-garde approaches to composition, pop tendencies, and songwriter aspirations becomes a vehicle for the most intimate lyrics. Evocative and expressive, it is difficult to imagine an artist quite like aya existing pre-21st century. But to quote Laurie Anderson herself, "This is the time. And this is the record of the time."