Manchester producer Ryan Hunn, aka Illum Sphere, has gained quite a reputation over the past few years as someone at the forefront of progressive UK electronic music. Firstly with his esteemed Manchester club night Hoya:Hoya and then with a string of diverse and impressive releases on some of the UK’s best electronic labels including 3024, Tectonic and Young Turks, Hunn has certainly made a name for himself.
Indeed, Illum Sphere’s burgeoning reputation reached Thom Yorke of Radiohead, a confirmed supporter who enlisted him to rework a track on Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs remix LP in 2011. Despite these multi-faceted activities, Illum Sphere had yet to deliver a defining statement. The producer’s full-length debut album for Ninja Tune, Ghosts Of Then And Now, is that statement.
The album is more than just a thrown together collection of various remixes, edits, cuts and experiments. It is rich in texture and atmosphere, with a strong sense of ambition and purpose. Many are the influences that go into Hunn’s work. On this album, you can hear echoes of two-step garage, sci-fi synth experimentalism, industrial clatter, soulful future RnB and numerous jazzy percussive flourishes. Hunn’s supreme skill is in coaxing, teasing and crafting these disparate sounds into one lucid and illuminating piece. Ghosts Of Then And Now appears to be a study of mood and nostalgia and how there are ghosts all around us; each song begins with a static hum that suggests some sort of spectral interference. The fractured, strung out Liquesce is the first indication of the haunting quality that this record possesses.
Despite frequent moments of dislocation and portent, Illum Sphere offsets the darker moments with wonderful illuminations of light. Many of the songs here are reminiscent of the process of flowers blossoming and blooming as the melodies and sounds take hold and becoming something altogether more powerful. A major feature of the album is the use of vocals, which are used to sweeten, tease and allure. The two-step symphony of At Night is taken to a glorious level with the use of understated vocals by Mai Nestor.
While electronic music of a similar note can often by impressive on sonic level, Illum Sphere conjures up genuine emotion and feeling throughout his layered experimentation. This trick is repeated on the quite lovely, glitch RnB slow jam Love Theme From Foreverness which features a sultry vocal from New York based vocalist Shadowbox. The effect is akin to the spellbinding productions that Timbaland concocted for Aaliyah in the late 1990s. Shadowbox in fact appears throughout, on a triumvirate of songs that provide the soulful heart of the album. The blissed out reverie of The Road is another moment of genuine beauty, while the gaseous exaltation of closer Embryonic is equally as stunning.
Despite frequent moments of beauty, there is a real edge and sense of foreboding darkness here. The menacing electronic arpeggiated groove of Sleeprunner is particularly dark and thrilling while other moments are similarly discombobulating such as the woozy, jazzy patterns of the oblique Ra_Light.
As the album title suggests, Illum Sphere is paying homage to the past while looking forward to the future. The stunning album highlight and title track is perhaps the best example of this twin approach. It’s a dazzling symphony of post-dubstep electronica coupled with rave’s beatific euphoria combining to make something that is both instantly familiar and beguilingly unknowable. It’s easy to see from this album just why Illum Sphere has been held in such high regard. It’s a supremely impressive and affecting album that is certain to propel him to an even greater echelon.