Powell + London Contemporary Orchestra

26 Lives

A live collaboration between electronic wunderkind Oscar powell and one of London's most adventurous orchestras leaves Skye Butchard wishing he'd been there on the night

Oscar Powell is no stranger to straying outside the expected confines of electronic music. His early EPs, simply named Club Music and Body Music, combined tense punk aggression and aesthetics with propulsive and barebones dance beats. A decade on, he’s strayed from the club completely, though the focus on blending electronics with other musical forms remains a clear throughline. On 26 Lives, he blends avant classical with drone, ambient and industrial alongside the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Recorded as part of LCO’s 24-hour concert at the Barbican 2022, 26 Lives condenses an intense performance into a sub-forty minute album. A sextet of double bass, cello, viola, clarinet, flute and percussion come in and out of focus, as blurred electronics obscure where one part starts and the other ends.

The compositions are focused on texture and tone rather than heart gripping melodies. ‘13, 12’ sounds like thick, bubbling tar with its gurgling plucks and pops, and subterranean clarinet notes. Immediately following is ‘10, 11, 4’, which uses aggressive bowing and overblowing to conjure whirring, decayed machinery. On both pieces, Powell remains in the background, playing with static to fill out the mix, letting the subtle interplay between the musicians take the lead, until a piercing bit of noise rises up to swallow everything.

He’s more of an obvious presence on ‘14, 23, 18’, where violent synths rise and fall like lightning hitting the ground. Warm muffled chords nestle close to a gentle droning viola from within the murk of the piece. The album is at its most affecting in moments like these, where a gorgeous human element peaks out as brief glimmers of life in an otherwise caustic and uncaring sonic landscape.

The project doesn’t offer too many surprises for those into modern composition. What you imagine when you hear ‘orchestral drone piece with some noisy electronics’ is more or less what you get. Powell brings some diversity by playing around with space and dynamics, but you get the sense that each piece could have started with a prompt like ‘variation on x note’ or ‘everything plucked’. It feels studied rather than embodied, which can put the listener at a distance when working with such a dissonant palette.

Given 26 Livesbegan as a live piece, the record might be missing the atmosphere and conversation that comes from witnessing a great performance. Still, it does provide some thrilling moments, like the closer ‘26’, where the LCO are stretched, reversed and garbled into alien samples. The feeling of disembodiment becomes oddly chilling. When the noise calms, the crowd applauds. You wish you were in the room with them.

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