The Pappy & Harriet’s saloon near Joshua Tree National Park had a hell of a night on the 26 April this year. On that frightfully cold evening in a small desert town, electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco recorded live their fourth full-length album Whorl. Drone metal pioneers Earth opened, not far away from the recording location of their eight studio release Primitive And Deadly.
Thus, James Ford and Jas Shaw (previously of Simian, hence the name) made Whorl in a manner contrary to their norm: build the concept in the studio, record the album out of the studio. It’s a challenging and welcome experiment for the two musicians who have three decades of music production experience between them. Previous releases utilised a bevy of synthesizers and instruments, but this time the set is a minimal is two modular synthesizers, two sequencers, and a single mixer.
Having produced bands in the past – not least Arctic Monkeys – Ford stated the band gave themselves “a taste of their own medicine” through stringently working to build a product that may be recorded in what is essentially a first take. And they’re successful! Whorl has a few faults, but generally speaking, it’s a prime release of downtempo and deep house.
Ambient techno isn’t what made SMD a house music mainstay, but that isn’t a problem. Remember The KLF? That band who made chart-topping house tracks and went on to make the aptly-titled Chill Out? Speaking of which, there are plenty of nods (intentional or not) to earlier electronic works, and it makes for a very pleasant listening experience. Redshift is straight Oneohtrix Point Never territory, and the synth bass of Calyx can’t help but evoke Aphex Twin’s Green Calyx (hint, hint) from Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Z Space sounds, well, spacey; complete with slow oscillations and enough beeps and boops for another Space Odyssey film.
The mixing and mastering diminish SMD’s liveliness. The sense of space is certainly present (check out Nazard), but tracks such as Jam Side Up and Iron Henge are remarkably flat. Whorl was recorded at a live concert, not a padded cell. The album doesn’t need the cheers of a crowd or anything quite so excessive, but there is that certain spatial something that Whorl is missing. Some tracks avoid this, especially the gradually building Sun Dogs and the swinging Tangents, the latter of which being the closest thing to a single this kind of release can get. Otherwise, it’s well-produced in the sense that there’s no clipping and the loud/soft dynamics are exquisite.
One thing that translated extremely well from concert to tape is the sheer cold of that icy April evening. The synthesizers on Nazard drip like melting icicles onto the mix, and Hypnick Jerk is downright frosty. Whorl is certainly well-timed in its release: it’s a pleasant soundtrack to the slowly cooling weather and the rain that comes with it.
There’s a bit of the old SMD dance craze on Dervish and Jam Side Up. There’s a bit of ’90s IDM play in there, specifically back in Mu-ziq’s prime. Dervish is the fastest track on Whorl, and has the most body-moving potential every which way via a pair of pitch-shifted electric piano chords. Jam Side Up is slightly too restrained to really let loose, but when played loud, it’s incredible. That’s the best way to experience Whorl: sure, it’s ambient techno, but to feel all the nuances of SMD’s minimal set-up, a good sound system is almost a requisite.
Toward the end, Whorl begins to feel a bit one-noted, and it’s not one whose tracks are necessarily distinguishable (with the exceptions of Dervish, Sun Dogs, Tangents, and Z Space). It is, however, a very engaging and beautiful release that really does fill up the space as it was intended upon recording despite a few flat points. Simian Mobile Disco are on point in the tracks they experiment the most: the opening suite of three almost entirely ambient sounds are three of the best in their discography, and they would be welcome avenues to explore in the future. So sit back, relax, and let the ice melt over you.