It’s fair to say that without a Brian Eno production in Brighton, an album like Pulse would not exist in the back catalogue of Astrid Williamson. After witnessing the music icon’s Pure Scenius show at the town’s annual arts festival last year she sent a bunch of demos to guitarist Leo Abrahams. After that, the duo collaborated together and, after scrapping most of the initial songs that were written, the result is a massive departure in sound for the former frontwoman of Goya Dress. Out goes the typical singer-songwriter style of her previous output and in comes a lot more layers and ambience.
The results of all this experimentation is a collection of songs that is very ambient and challenging at points but very successful. Williamson’s vocals throughout are sublime; she sings in ways that totally suit the tone and stylistics of the soundscapes that she’s created. The distant sounds that are often heard whirring away during most of the tracks are inventive and help change the feel of a song very powerfully (see the brilliant Reservation as a great example of how it changes an otherwise straightforward piano ballad).
Most importantly though, the songwriting is stellar, and without those chops all the messing around in the studio would have been in vain. What might be striking to older fans is just how dark things have gotten, musically speaking. Underwater is when proceedings are at their most haunting with machine-like noises designed to agitate and startle in the background. Husk also manages to create a downtempo, fragile and sombre atmosphere until it explodes magnificently in its final minute or so. In a way it’s very reminiscent of Portishead‘s Third, even if you’re unlikely to find anything on here as harsh as Machine Gun or Plastic.
It’s not a completely ‘difficult’ record to get into, thankfully, as a few more conventional songs are woven in at appropriate points. The lead single Pour starts off slowly but towards the end a knockout vocal harmony. Miracle and the title track are both hazy and lush but also nowhere near as quiet; they’re actually fairly breezy and run the risk of looking out of place but somehow this isn’t necessarily the case; because of the nature of the rest of her material, these often feel like a welcome respite from the bleakness. Paperbacks, which closes the album, is almost in contrast with the nine tracks that have just gone before it thanks to its restrained instrumentation and arrangements. Soon enough, it flourishes a bit more but it’s still an intimate, bare and appropriate finish that works very well.
It’s a bold chance in direction for Astrid Williamson that she’s managed to pull off extremely competently. Reinvention is a word that is overused in music and a lot of the time when it’s used all it means is that an artist has added synths or guitars and used them in ways that often don’t excite. Pulse, however, definitely feels like the real deal though.