When Oliver Coates released debut album Towards The Blessed Islands back in 2013 it seemed as if he was going to be the latest name to join the growing group of composer musicians to be grouped under the modern classical label. It was a forward-looking album that explored the many possibilities of the cello, an instrument he has played since childhood. Yet the release of second album Upstepping in 2016 saw this view being swiftly adjusted. The sound of the cello had been largely replaced by fizzing electronics, supple beats, jarring samples and vocal fragments. It showed Coates to be just as much of an electronic producer as a cellist and this view is furthered by latest release Shelley’s On Zenn-La.
The basic premise behind the album shows the breadth of imagination and ambition at play – it’s inspired by the idea of a nightclub that existed in 1980s Stoke-on-Trent coming back to life on a fictional planet by the name of Zenn-La. Of course it is.
Faraday Monument gets the album off to a suitably alien-sounding start, all irregular percussion and isolated synths. A Church is built around inverted basslines and a softly pirouetting vocal from elusive singer/musician Chrysanthemum Bear (who, like Coates, contributed to the last Radiohead album A Moon Shaped Pool).
Lime and Charlev see Coates at his purest, electronically speaking. The former is a colour-faded Boards Of Canada-style electronic miniature while the latter sees brightly ricocheting synths propel and extend themselves outward, flanked by hints of traditional instrumentation. It’s the track on the album that best bridges the gap between the digital and the analogue.
Norrin Radd Dreaming opens with gauzy electronics before heading off in more densely percussive directions and Cello Renoise offers the first clear sound of the cello, albeit overladen with beats. Final track Perfect Apple With Silver Mark ensures the album goes out on a high, reintroducing a strong sense of ‘other’ to the agile, utterly contemporary electronic sounds that unfold. Other names may get more attention and greater plaudits but there aren’t many musical polymaths quite like Coates – his music is inventive and intriguing and has that special quality where you’re never quite certain what will happen next. Shelley’s On Zenn-La only adds to his increasingly impressive reputation.