Sam Willis’ debut solo album hovers in an ambiguous space between the subtly arresting and the insipid. This record’s 40 minutes of vaguely ambient techno slides furtively in and out of the perceptual background as an ephemeral cloud of glowing textures and beats. Winterval is an album that eludes quick evaluation: Willis’ harmonic and melodic contours skirt the banal whilst his refined sense of textural shaping simultaneously cloaks the music in an ethereal mystique. Indeed, the question of whether Winterval’s sophisticated production style can compensate for the distinct lack of engagement provided by the somewhat plodding compositional material is not so easy to answer.
Having already released two acclaimed albums of ambient electronica on Kompakt as one half of Walls, Willis displays his acute appreciation of sonic texture and acoustic space to striking degree throughout Winterval. Much like its elegant cover photo, this music is vitalised at its surface with a seductive grain whilst being bathed in a depth of atmospheric space. Although the record is constructed largely around a synthetic palette of synths and drum machines, Winterval retains an layer of organic nuance throughout its duration.
Willis’ drum tracks exemplify his sense of internal space: juxtaposing the thin, dry hits of a drum machine with a selection of rhythmic samples surrounded in a haze of reverb, Willis sets up a dialogue between digital and analogue, situating the inhuman sounds of the drum machine within an enlarged, nuanced space. Willis’ rhythms are at once disjointed yet cohesive; disparate elements fused together in a spontaneous, intoxicating unity. The use of subtly atmospheric vocal samples throughout the album also serves to augment the synthetic soundscape with a breathy evanescence; Willis’ synths are haunted by half-remembered echoes of sounds and voices, fraying the sharp digitised edges and instilling the aural space with a humanised warmth.
However, Winterval falls short of exploiting Willis’ strengths to the full. This record betrays a curiously conflicted identity as it progresses, teetering erratically between appealing to the corporeal and the cerebral. The spectral, shimmering opening track Hello Wendy is followed by the tired drudge of Weird Science, glomming on a relentlessly dull three-chord sequence for the entirety of its duration with little by way of timbral development. With tracks like Weird Science it seems Willis is attempting to target the viscera whilst maintaining his reserved aesthetic; as such, Willis’ overt cautiousness prevents him from ameliorating for the diminished subtlety of these tracks.
In attempting to strike a balance between two competing musical concerns, Willis has been left with an album that largely falls victim to its own indecision. Winterval’s occasional anonymity belies the young producer’s vast potential: the strikingly lucid textural passages on this record point to the developments that we might expect from Willis’ output in the future. For now though, Winterval is intermittently graceful yet often slight and inconsequential: an enigmatic album that is unlikely to linger in the memory for long.