Portrait With Firewood

A meticulous, moving electronic album

Whether it’s the judder of bass filtering out of the rave and into the walk home or the noise of the city floating out to the countryside, much of British electronic music over the past two decades is at home in the gaps between emotional states – those blurry moments between euphoria and sadness, between sleep and waking, between buried memories and the present moment.

Felix Manuel, also known as Djrum, has built a hideout for himself among these spaces. He may have attracted less media attention in the past than some of his contemporaries, but his output over the past five or six years has been consistently meticulous. A connoisseur of (among other things) jungle, techno, ambient and footwork, he’d be a proficient enough producer if he just stuck to one of these genres. Instead, he takes in elements from all these sources and composes tracks that adhere to their own unique internal logic.

One of the distinctive traits of his production is his use of film samples. Rather than the sci-fi/gangster movie clips that have become a staple of genres like drum & bass, the dialogue he draws on is always of characters expressing uncertainty, shyness, vulnerability or alienation, as though he’s leaving narrative breadcrumbs to guide the listener through the emotional landscapes he’s trying to navigate. Portrait With Firewood, his latest record on R&S Records, takes this approach and extends it.

On ‘Showreel Pt. 3’ a voice cuts in to say “I feel so divorced from the world”, and we feel a jolt of the headspace he might have been in when he made the album. The LP is built around an expanded palette which offers an epic overview of intense emotions. This comes in part through collaboration: cellist Zosia Jagodzinska and vocalist Lola Empire make vital contributions, adding layers of depth to an album that encompasses tunes built for the rave, moments of headphone introspection and modern classical influences that constantly threaten to wriggle away from the boundaries of electronic music altogether.

Empire’s vocals are particularly stunning on ‘Sparrows’, while Jagodzinska’s cello is at its most haunting on ‘Creature Pt. 1’. The other essential component is Manuel’s own piano playing. As well as being a highly skilled electronic musician, he’s also a trained jazz pianist. His technique of using contact microphones on the piano adds a dreamy quality to many tracks, sitting in perfect counterpoint to his beats and offering a more intimate glimpse into his world.

It’s a complex album, both emotionally and rhythmically. ‘V’, for example, is based on a 5-beat rhythm, a pretty challenging time signature to build electronic music around. While marimbas echo in the background and the cello hums with longing, the track eventually sputters into its own glitchy, circular trajectory. Songs also shift and veer off in unexpected directions. ‘Sex’, while it could be loosely described as a techno tune, morphs halfway through, its menacing synth work giving way to far softer cellos and piano sounds. ‘Showreel Part 3’ starts off with warm, oxytocin-infused pad sounds which are soon under attack from a relentless kick drum, the likes of which you’d normally find in a gabba or hardtek track.

Manuel has described Portrait With Firewood as “a confessional record”, and it shows. The album’s emotional depth and honesty is almost overwhelming at points, and a welcome contrast to the one-dimensional output of so many producers. It’s a brilliantly realised album, full of tenderness and sadness, yearning for the full potential of electronic music.

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