Feeling Sinister: LP.8 By Kelly Lee Owens

Kelly Lee Owens’s latest, a surprising and stunning album, is much more than the mathematics of influences, says Bernie Brooks

Kelly Lee Owens by Kim Hiorthøy-2

It’s Sunday, 29 January 2017, 8:31 PM EST. I receive a seven-line email from [REDACTED], no subject as usual. Transcribed verbatim, including spacing and punctuation, it reads like an avant-garde poem:

There’s a tub of chocolate ice cream in my freezer called Detroit Rock City. It has marshmallows in it. Y’’all know anything about this?

also is it played out to use the term “psychogeography”?


Kelly Lee Owens has some good things on it.

Bernie is your mix mixed? or separate jams?


Evolution Technology Detroit 12 from 1987. Is really good.

And with that, Kelly Lee Owens was firmly on my radar. I was vaguely aware of her before, though I hadn’t heard any of her stuff outside of her collaborations with Daniel Avery and a Jenny Hval rework she’d done. There’d been an EP called Oleic, released in the run up to the disastrous 2016 US election, so I’d missed that one for reasons that are probably obvious. That [REDACTED] sign off, though! It meant Owens was probably the real deal, and it turned out I’d already pre-ordered her self-titled debut as part of my general policy to buy most any long-player Smalltown Supersound puts out.

So, I had something to look forward to.

When the album was released, its somewhat arty, techno-influenced synth-pop didn’t disappoint, but it wasn’t perfect. It was kind of an ideal first LP in that way. You could tell that Owens was still feeling out her identity as an artist, and it was rife with potential. Her voice was airy and affecting, her production choices were astute, and there was a perceived ease about it all (regardless of the realities of her process). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Owens was everywhere. A friend wondered: “Is this real or just hype?”

In 2020, in the first phase of the pandemic, I was furloughed from my job. In March, I bought a khaki Enya tee shirt, some light khaki pants, and, in the summer, some Teva sandals. This was my uniform. I wore it most days. It felt like I was trying to manifest something. I wore a khaki hat, too, as if I were a founding member of some Enya-centric cult of beige enthusiasts.

In September, after customary delays due to COVID, Owens’s second LP, Inner Song finally emerged. It had a Radiohead cover and had been influenced by climate change. It also expanded the template laid out by her first record. There was obvious artistic growth, but Inner Song was still very locked-in, rigidly attached to pop-song structures and/or beats. Still, it was pretty delightful, and at its best at its weirdest – an odd and heartfelt art-pop collaboration with John Cale. By its release, I had been back to work for several months. An “essential worker”, I was trying my best to acclimate to a new normal that many – even then – were insisting was the old normal. We listened to Inner Song for a while in the warehouse as summer transitioned to fall. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it – like many records released during lockdown – was meant for a different timeline, one where things were, if not much better, at least less completely effed.

Fast forward a little to March of this year, and the pandemic is different but still isn’t over, though most people with any sort of power are insisting it is. I’m still wearing my Enya tee more than I should. Owens announces her third LP and the subject of this review, LP.8. Its press release centres on an intention to make music “somewhere in between Throbbing Gristle and Enya.” Naturally, my curiosity is piqued. Then, I see that it was made in collaboration with Lasse Marhaug.

Marhaug is a guy we should talk about more often. At this point, he’s probably best known as a producer for the likes of Jenny Hval, but he’s a legit artist in his own right, with deep roots in the extreme noise underground dating back to the early 90s. His discography is more than sprawling, but his work, whether solo or as a member of gnarly experimental miscreants Jazkamer or in collabo-mode, speaks for itself.

Rewind to the end of 2020, and Marhaug has blown my mind three times in quick succession:

1.) Actions For Free Jazz (AFJ-Series/Smalltown Supersound), 11 August 2020 – Riffing on the classic ESP Sampler, Marhaug creates an explosive megamix of free jazz sourced from the Smalltown Supersound universe of labels by splicing together forty cuts in under forty minutes.

2.) April 1st 2020 (Boomkat Editions/Documenting Sound), 24 September 2020 – An hour of music recorded on the titular date, Marhaug’s drones range from oppressive to heartbreakingly gorgeous over four lengthy tracks.

3.) Harmonia Macrocosmica (AFJ-Series/Smalltown Supersound), 6 November 2020 – Throughout this collaboration with free jazz legend Joe McPhee, squawking sax and crispy gurgles and tape noise swirl around one another like a bad trip soundtrack to a nightmare Powers Of Ten. Somehow both freaky and liberatory.

Though I wouldn’t describe any of these records as ‘easy’, what they are is two things: free in a very palpable way and, regardless of when they were made or the source materials used, reflective of the pervasive feeling of Now.

Isn’t there an old saying, “Great artists pick the right collaborators at the right time,” or something like that?

The story, so we’re told, goes like this: Her world tour kaput, an open-minded Owens bounced to Oslo on the last plane out before the borders closed. There, she linked up with Marhaug, and working together they conjured up a soundworld marrying “tough, industrial sounds with ethereal Celtic mysticism.”

Which brings us back to the whole “LP.8 = Enya x Throbbing Gristle” thing. To be honest, if we’re talking the noise this thing makes, as a reductive equation it works. As a talking point, it’s a great bit of PR – catnip for music writers like me who are sure to glom onto it. But I worry that this true-yet-shrewd piece of shorthand will distract from the real story here, which is Owens’s fearless and frankly astonishing growth as an artist and the surprising album she’s made, which is so much more than the mathematics of influences.

There are no hooks on LP.8, no club ready beats, no choruses, nothing that could be described as a ‘pop song’. This is an unruly, wandering record that prizes repetition and drone and drift above all else. This applies to the sung vocals and lyrics, too, which are minimal to say the least. When Owens gets wordy here, she’s addressing the listener directly in the spoken word passages of ‘Quickening’’and ‘Sonic 8’. This is an album in which the mood shifts like weather over a succession of tracks that often feel like watching the sun rise or set.

It begins with a hiss (repeated), sharp breaths (repeated), a mumbled, whispered exhortation to “move your body” (repeated), a lone kick (repeated), the word “release” (repeated), and some clicking percussion (repeated). That’s about it for five minutes. The opener, ‘Release’, seems like it’s going to burst into a proper banger at any moment, but it never does. The promised release never comes. Instead, using that limited set of ingredients (which it should be noted, all sound incredible), Owens ratchets up tension, only to wind it down. It’s a fantastic headfake, a bold opening gambit that upends the listener’s expectations of what’s to come.

If the steam hiss and thuds of ‘Release’ and ‘Voice’ are industry, then the eight-minute wind chime bliss-out of ‘Anadlu’ (Welsh for ‘breathing’, according to the internet) properly begins our trek into the bucolic and ancient, into the mystical and pastoral. This journey culminates with ‘Nana Piano’, a long instrumental composition of touching piano figures, bird calls, and incidental clacks and gentle thunks and creaks.

Afterward, the weather gets darker, heavy. The wind chimes of ‘Anadlu’ turn ominous on ‘Quickening’ when paired with both a grim low-end drone and a subtly creepy, reedy higher one. Even so, light occasionally breaks through the charcoal clouds of breath and glitched vocals. ‘One’ – maybe the ‘songiest’ song on the record – layers and juxtaposes sung lyrics that could be interpreted as a love song with more spoken word: “Hot ash where nothing grows, yet where everything is possible … A new way, a new life, burn the old structures to the ground. A new way, a new life.”

Later, on ‘Sonic 8’, the album’s last and harshest track: “You’re tired, I’m tired, you’re tired … We want to be free, together. None of us are free unless all of us are free … I’ve been feeling for a long time now that something’s wrong, deeply wrong … This is an emergency. This is a wake-up call.”

Owens’s career as an artist has developed in tandem with, geopolitically speaking, a whole host of nightmare bullshit. And while she’s touched on these troubled times before, LP.8 is the first of her records to really mirror them in feel – the hope and beauty, the exhaustion and melancholy – as well as in content, and the result is stunning. This thing she’s made with Marhaug is unafraid and untethered and honest. It is by far her best record, and it seems to me it’s about as good as records get.

Owens has said that LP.8 will “ripple infinitely within [her] personally.” I hope that’s true. I’ll be here in my Enya tee, waiting to hear what comes next. Maybe [REDACTED] will send me another poem about it.

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