Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #17

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Deputy Editor Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases in this monthly feature. Astral Realm is a liminal space, a guide to music emphasising experimentation and musical virtuosity. Each monthly roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight, and a breakdown of the month’s noteworthy releases.

Focus Artist: Loraine James

On her third album for Hyperdub, ‘Gentle Confrontation’, Loraine James finds her voice in the scattered shards of her past. Across the hour-long threnody – which zips between ambient dreams and downbeat experiments, panoramic orchestral interludes, and granular takes on RnB – James revisits the details of her backstory with bracing tenderness.

James’ voice is front of the mix. Naturally narcotic – often unaffected and crystalline, other times processed and distant – there’s an unadorned quirk to the way James frames uncomfortable, dissonant memories. Wading through the phantasms of death, dementia and dysphoria, James leavens a heart-rending experience that could have been passionless in the hands of another producer. James isn’t alone in her reminiscence, and contemplation of present-day melancholia. She finds kinship through association. Leaning on friends and dream features – keiyaA, Merina Herlop, Eden Samara, George Riley, to name a few – James creates a patchwork tapestry of voices, textures, anecdotes and narrative sketches conveying the permanent flux of modern life.

In conversation just prior to the release of ‘Gentle Confrontation’, James talks creative practice, the evolution of her voice as a means of self-expression, gatekeepers in electronic music, and why this album signifies both a new dawn and an era denouement…

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It’s nice to be able to honour what I believe to be your most striking, emotionally-gratifying and complete work to date...

Thank you. I’m getting nervous as we approach release day. My mind’s racing and I’m thinking this piece of work is bad, but you can’t do anything about it either way.

Last year you reinterpreted the work of Julius Eastman, reacting to this obscure figure within music: this unsung virtuoso. Did that experience inform the making of this album?

I’m someone who gets bored quite quickly, and really the fact of the matter is I like making albums. I much prefer making an album to an EP or short-form project. I discovered in the past year I’m an album person and I like being invested in the journey an album takes you on. My Julius Eastman interpretation was separate from ‘A Gentle Confrontation’. I’m pretty good at drawing a line under a project and moving on. I was working on the Eastman project at the end of 2021, and then began working on ‘A Gentle Confrontation’. I will say ‘Building Something Beautiful For Me’ chimed with my experience within electronic music; being faceless and nameless.

You’re on the road a lot, touring as a DJ and curator. Have you settled into a groove of producing bodies of work and performing said bodies of work on the road? Do you pine for home when you’re travelling?

It’s often towards the end when I miss home. I start touring this album next week and I’m really stressed because it’s the most intense thing I’ve ever done. The real worry is fatigue and travel delays. That’s the gruelling element of what I do: the moments in between.

Why did you settle on ‘Gentle Confrontation’ as an album title?

I didn’t have any other title in mind but naming anything always comes at the end of the process. It always comes in the form of inspiration at random points in the day. I think it captured the contrast in my work; the soft side, the fast and the hard side. In the context of the topics I’m covering, I wanted to approach it with tenderness.

This album reconciles emo teenage Loraine with the Loraine you are today. Going back to these formative years, were you drawn to atypical structures and odd time signatures in music, alongside conventional rock and RnB?

Definitely, but I also felt I kind of stumbled into my interests by accident. First it was math rock, and I remember being so thrown by the sound because it changed every four bars. I saw it as a challenge; finding the rhythm in the chaos. When you do it just clicks. Then I got into IDM which has similar conventions. I found comfort in unyielding and unchanging sounds. I love being surprised and disarmed by a sound randomly panned across my earphones. 

The track ‘2003’ memorialises your Dad’s passing 20 years ago. It captures the unpredictability of life, whilst also acknowledging your Mum’s role as a protector. The listener is made aware that this is an anecdotal experience from the off…

When I told Hyperdub ‘2003’ was the first taste of the album they were initially against it. I was quite set on that because I wanted to deviate from putting a dance track out, which I usually tend to do. There are dance elements on this album but generally it’s not within that world. I wanted to open on a vulnerable note. It needed to be the introduction, so I positioned it high up because of the transition from the violin opener.

Thematically, ‘Gentle Confrontation’ centres kinship and connection. It’s you orbiting the people closest to you; moving between past and present. In your own words why was it important you framed an experience of discovery about your yourself in this way?

Over time, in my work, I’ve become more open with my feelings and doing away with the idea that electronic music is cold or unfeeling. I didn’t set out to make a personal album but my Dad’s death anniversary was on my mind. It being 20 years since laid the foundation. I revisited memories from when I was younger, when I was unable to understand certain experiences. It was important I brought that to adult life which also has a similar sense of unknowing. You’re expected as adults to have a fuller understanding about who you are, but I still experience confusion about my body, my mind and my experiences. This is me trying to sift through the angst through an adult lens.

This album excels because you weave in collaborative voices alongside your own. It aids the narrative, the mood and the tone of the piece in its entirety. How did you go about sourcing your collaborators on this album?

I make a song with space for words, and what helps me is finding a YouTube a capella of Brandy or Justin Bieber, which I then match words or production to. Before I start an album I have a list of notes of who I want to work with. I have a new one even now! These are all people I admire. I never tell them much about the album because I’m keen for them to interpret the production in their own way. It’s almost never what I expect. keiyaA rearranged some of ‘Let U Go’ and added autotune. I don’t give briefs because I don’t like rigidity in music.

Photo Credit: Ivor Alice

The track with George Riley ‘Speechless’ has this dreamy RnB sensibility to it. Tell me about remaking RnB – a genre you grew up on – in your own image…

I listened to a lot of Brandy and Aaliyah. This album is informed by my love of interludes and classic RnB tropes. RnB songs are long and the best RnB albums have great interludes. The George Riley track is three songs in one; the intro was the outro, and the middle bit was the beginning. We made it in 2021 and then we reworked it last year. I was playing around with it on Ableton and felt it needed to be fleshed out with an outro. I was into slowing it down to half-time. I was in my Timbaland and Darkchild bag!

The last two tracks on ‘Gentle Confrontation’ – ‘I’m Trying To Love Myself’ and ‘Saying Goodbye’ featuring Contourfeels like a process of acceptance and a goodbye. Like you’re drawing a line in the sand…

I feel this is the most ambitious and biggest thing I’ve done. It bridges all the things I love in one package. ‘Saying Goodbye’ does feel like the perfect ending because I don’t think I have it in me to make an album like this again. I don’t know what the next one will sound like…

Is that because you’re in extended break mode? Are you craving downtime to recalibrate?

Sometimes I’m just conscious about the volume of work I’ve put out, which is irrational. Equally, like I said, I get the urge to create often. I feel like another Whatever The Weather project is most likely the next venture. In terms of creating under Loraine James, I don’t know if I’ll be as vulnerable or open as I was on this album.

How did you go about achieving an album that flows seamlessly despite these disparate sound collages?

It’s weird because I try not to let it get painstaking. I’ll put it on shuffle and see what works together as some tracks lend itself to certain spots on the album. I don’t usually like anyone else’s input. I’ll listen to suggestions but just imagine doing all the work and putting those decisions on someone else. I could never.

Talk me through the journey you’ve been on as a vocalist, and the conscious decision you made to foreground your voice here…

I still feel there’s a stigma around electronic artists pivoting towards vocal-led work. I’ve always liked singing; I remember singing loudly to Limp Bizkit in my room. Over the past three records I’ve become more confident in recognising I’m not technically a good singer, but that I like the textural part of singing. My voice was quieter in the mix before, on this one it’s a focal part. It’s not hidden because maybe I’m not hiding anymore.

Your work spans the electronic continuum. If you had to pick out a pocket of sound you feel you’ve made your own, what would it be?

That’s a hard one but I’d say I have a different approach to IDM. I think now that I’ve created a high-volume of work, I can say that this with some confidence.

Do you read reviews of you work?

I’m always interested about the way my work is being interpreted. I can tell when someone has listened to my work previously. When I make an album I don’t share it with my inner circle. I’m still quite shy and solitary about my work. When the reviews come in or listeners give their opinion, I’m always interested by their responses. I always seem to get comments when I feature a rapper on one of my records; I’ll get a “this is jarring” comment about mumble rap over an electronic beat.

Do you feel that sense of entitlement from listeners and the wider electronic community about access and cross-collaboration?

Electronic music and hip-hop have always been linked. The beats are so intricate and experimental. When electronic music fans hear a rapper on a track that an electronic artist produces, there’s this faux outrage. Minds are still narrow. I’m proud to be an experimental electronic artist but I’m also black, so that kind of shock doesn’t compute with me. I roll my eyes when a white artist does the same but doesn’t get the same level of outrage. It’s seemingly groundbreaking when they do it.

You’ve amassed a really dense discography, and there are so many entry points of discovery. With this album, what would be the desired outcome given it’s so personal?

I want people to sit with this album and soak it all in. It’s longer and it’s more expansive. I like to keep lyrics vague so a listener can interpret what they want. I find you can guide a listener but you can’t compel them to feel anything through force. Admittedly, I am more protective over this album because it’s baby me. I’m intrigued by what people will make of this album. Just take this album with care.

Photo Credit: Mark Yareham

Next Wave Recommendation: Ralphie Choo

Madrileño polymath Juan Casado Fisac aka Ralphie Choo is a vocal chameleon on debut album ‘SUPERNOVA’.

Flitting between symphony, bossa, Latin trap, flamenco, syncopated breakbeats and a whole lot more, Ralphie Choo vivisects his perennially-online influences into a skewed suite of songs. There’s a hauntological feel throughout; classical reprises, interludes and allusions to Spanish mythology, folklore and fables elevate moments of bristling self-examination. Indeed, amongst the lacerating grooves and chopped-and-screwed template, Ralphie Choo comes to terms with his fast-ascending trajectory; that of a forlorn dreamer to a reverent provocateur being compared to compatriots Rosalía and C. Tangana.

Meet the inter-disciplinary artist utilising the vast expanse of his imagination, casting out a multitudinous vision of a culture that has nurtured and sustained him, but one that he isn’t beholden to.

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Let’s start with your origin story. Tell me about your early family life in Madrid and when your latent creativity was awakened?

I was born in Madrid but most of my adolescence was spent in a town in Castilla la Mancha called Daimiel. From an early age my mother introduced me to artists like Paco de Lucía, Camarón and the classical, early romantic repertoire. I took horn and percussion lessons at a local music school. As I got older, I started to lose interest in music and it wasn’t until I went to university that I decided to take up music again. That’s when this whole journey began.

I read that you very nearly studied chemical engineering. What compelled you to move to music production? There’s a natural alchemy in your work that’s present in both disciplines…

I decided to pursue music because I felt it was the place where I could develop my creativity the most, and where I felt there was more room for it, if that makes sense. I think the alchemy, experimentation and development of chemistry is very similar to the creative process of artistic work. It’s based on testing and the idea of putting disparate components together to see how they behave in an environment. It’s about observing the fruit of that combination and drawing conclusions.

Tell me about the RusiaIDK imprint and the people that comprise it: yourself, rusowsky, mori, Tristán, and Drummie. What unites you all and how is this label different from what’s out there?

Above all there’s a friendly relationship between us; we’re like life partners united through the love we feel for this profession. I think the socio-cultural value of the label lies in leaving the margins music, and opening new paths without looking away from pop and the meaning of the word “popular”. Even though we freak out with the production and lyrics, there are always common, catchy elements of popular culture within what we release.

Talk to me about the progression of the arts community in Madrid. How has it informed your free-flowing, porous approach to creating music?

I think one of the most important people in the development of music in Madrid is mori. When artists like Clairo, Rex Orange County, Yellow Days or Still Woozy began to emerge with this DIY philosophy in the US, this kid from Ceuta observed the movement and transferred it to Spain. From there, artists like rusowsky came up. He was another key piece in a fertile period for progressive music. Our now manager Manuel found out about this movement and began to recruit the artists that interested him. From that moment until now artists from all over Spain have come to Madrid – it feels like the epicentre of a movement. It’s nice that we help and collaborate with each other: we meet to make music, to party, to have beers. The key difference now is that there is no longer a barrier dividing scenes in music. It’s genre-less.

Name three albums that get as close to revealing who you are as an artist?

‘El Mal Querer’ by Rosalía, ‘Blonde’ by Frank Ocean and ‘Process’ by Sampha.

Your debut album ‘Supernova’ is a marked evolution from your earlier material. In what ways have you aggregated all the elements that came before and in what ways have you ripped up the rulebook?

I think this album is about personal introspection, breaking away from pre-established barriers and limits. In a fashion sense, it’s like the first sample of a collection. It’s about craftsmanship: it’s about understanding how we reference existing work, how we unravel all the elements that comprise it, zoom in on detail, listen and observe what is happening at each moment. It’s been a long process which has given me time to think about everything in detail.

Talk me through the process creating a patchwork album like ‘Supernova‘, which has so many references and influences coursing through it. What was on your moodboard?

It will be about two years from the time I started with the first demos. I remember the day that I called Drummie (friend, guardian angel and co-producer on this album) to begin working on the album. By the end of the week we had demos of the album to listen to. There was still a long way to go but the ideas were super developed. We had so much fun making this album. We used items, doors, screams, stomps; we played instruments badly to extract different formulas. We reorganised the structure and the core theme, and created up to 200 tracks. At the end we kept the tracks we felt fit better, so that the disparate elements wouldn’t overwhelm the listener. We wanted it not to feel like a meaningless medley where the elements were getting in the way of each other.

What’s the inspiration behind the album artwork? There’s a menacing energy about it that matches the creative abandon on the album…

It was a normal smile in the beginning but we decided to exaggerate the smile to the point it became deranged and ambiguous. It’s the happiest smile you’ve ever seen but when you look at it for a while it starts to transmit another feeling; something fake and manufactured. Later we realised that it closely resembles Aphex Twin’s ‘Richard D. James Album’ artwork, which is both brilliant and serendipitous.

‘Supernova’ is a global pop record that is playful, unpredictable, borderless and gleefully referential. Even for non-Spanish listeners there’s points that feel familiar and accessible. What is the narrative through line?

There’s not a super clear narrative thread but there are little episodes where I tell a journey of introspection; where I get to know myself and tell my perspective about life and what I’ve learned these last two years. This is just the dream world of a kid. It’s a blurred memory of the past, a lucid present and a hopeful but no less uncertain future. You’re the main character in a story where secondary characters appear and disappear. It also speaks of a generation whose only way of expressing itself is through recycling leftovers from a Golden Age. It speaks of reinterpretation and over-stimulation. I’m recontextualising the heritage I have. It’s not too far from the work of Duchamp…

Photo Credit: Mark Yareham

You reference an allegorical fable ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ on the opening track. What’s the connection to your personal story? What’s the significance of the “Look at this so humble, enemies are crumbled” line?

It’s based on a fable of overcoming barriers, of breaking barriers, of breaking out of the herd that reminds you everyday that you’re not capable. For me, it’s become something of a Bible. I turn to the book when I’m down or when my perspective gets a little cloudy. The meaning of the phrase is a little bit of a hat tip. When you hear something that speaks for itself, you don’t need to embellish it to give it more prominence. It’s like when the opposing team applauds a play worthy of admiration, it blurs the barrier that keeps them apart and they both realise in that moment they fell in love with the game.

The track ‘WHIPCREAM’ establishes a signature style of deconstructed Latin-RnB. What was it like working with fellow renegades Paris Texas on a transatlantic invention?

The major reference was Playboi Carti, where the adlibs take centre stage aesthetically and the bass keeps you bouncing the whole song. We worked remotely but Paris Texas got it right the first time. We met months later in Los Angeles and the truth is that I love them even more now.

The video for ‘WHIPCREAM’ is a mesh of eras and iconography. Who influences your directorial vision?

I’ve very obsessed with Ulrich Seidl. I love stories about the underworld; the people who live in the underworld you suspect have a secret laboratory but you never quite know if it’s true or real. We used a lot of symbols, surreal universes, references to MF DOOM and Latin American iconography. One of the most important things for us is the composition of the elements in one shot.

‘METAVERSE’ featuring Wet is one of my favourite tracks on the album; a dreamy ambient trip. It ends in a similar way to the opening song…

When an exhilarating experience ends you feel an incredible inner peace and calm. That’s what I wanted to convey: the calm after the storm, the moment when you settle everything that just happened. It also ends with the phrase “just walk”. The destination is reached by walking with an abrupt cut that seems like a glitch. We wanted to honour all the mistakes and trials that have led us this far in this incredible adventure.

What track from ‘SUPERNOVA’ is the personal highlight for you?

I’m super proud of ‘TOTAL90NOSTALGIA’ because it’s a journey where all the elements are growing until the moment when everything explodes. Another one I’m proud of is ‘VOYCONTODO’. It’s a song I started and finished two months before the release of the album, and sums up the connection between pop and experimentation.

Who or what in the music, literature or pop culture realms are you enjoying right now?

I like to democratise the profession and make it more accessible. There are minds that still don’t know what they are capable of. I like Murakami, Paul Thomas Anderson, Pixar movies, brand logos…

Final words on what you want to evoke in the imagination of listeners when they experience your debut?

The feeling of something familiar when it’s in fact totally unfamiliar. For them to realise the extent to which they have lived; to tap into memory and imagination, which is boundless. That love is the only thing left. It sounds corny but it’s real. LOVE Y’ALL.

Release Roundup:

Slauson Malone 1 – ‘EXCELSIOR

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Reviving his musical sobriquet, Slauson Malone 1 – real name Jasper Marsalis – masters the art of auto-fiction on the esoteric crosshatch that is ‘EXCELSIOR’; named after a metaphorical sword that expands until it’s big enough to slice the world in two. Marsalis weaves interior tales of love, masculinity, culture and consciousness through dual sides: ‘Joy’ and ‘Voyager’.

These intractable performance pieces run the gamut between baroque pop, hazy psych-rock, torch songs, jingle jangle guitar and organ pieces…the list goes on. ‘Challenger’ is a rare reprise on a serpentine song cycle that is confounding and disarming in equal measure. Slauson Malone 1 is a non-conformist at heart; a musical architect designing waggish fantasy worlds. ‘EXCELSIOR‘ is his neo-noir story of metamorphosis, exalting in world-building and dismantling, and every subsequent listen reveals the profundity of it’s maker.

Natanya – ‘Sorrow at Sunrise’

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There’s something special about Natanya.

On her debut EP ‘Sorrow At Sunrise’, the bohemian riser frames true-to-life adult transitions through songs that bypass verse-chorus formula and typical songbook tropes. Within these prismatic songs you’ll hear the vocal curlicues redolent of RnB sirens and the world-weariness of a neo-soul songbird. The two best tracks begin with P, pacing between smokiness and sweetness: On the slow-motion strum of ‘Precious Joy’ Natanya sings of a love so epic and elemental it could shatter skies; ‘Parasites’, home to all manner of dispersed vocal stops and starts, showcases a keen ear for iconoclasts – a Prince-evoking melodrama climaxing with wailing guitars. ‘Sorrow At Sunrise’ is a paean to self-discovery, the shedding of skin, virtue and naivety as the big city beckons.

Little Dragon, April + VISTA – ‘Slipping Into Color’

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Recorded across a week in the Swedish stalwarts’ Gothenburg haunt, ‘Slipping Into Color’ is a joyous electro-acoustic coda from two tonally aligned acts. The Washington duo – comprised of composer/vocalist April George and producer Matthew Thompson – have steadily assembled an underground following through brooding, liminal compositions. With Little Dragon, they project strange and soulful inventions into the cosmos. George’s jazz-trained phrasing harmonically compliments Nagana’s bluesy cadence across four tracks spanning minor key tribal-house (‘Rebels’) and spectral slow funk (‘Slumber’). These are dirges for the eternal wayfarer.

Honeydrip ft. King Shadrock – ‘Sound Gyal’

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Part of a contingent of underground Canadian luminaries, Honeydrip unveils her debut collection ‘Psychotropical’ on Bristol-based imprint Banoffee Pies. The title identifies Honeydrip’s cerebral take on techno-tinged, dub-dancehall hybrids, no more evident than on ‘Sound Gyal’, which features reggae pioneer King Shadrock’s oracular flow over a torpid future variant beat.

DijahSB – ‘How R U’

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“I feel like this song could literally come out between today and 2019 and still have the same impact…”

The Toronto rapper elucidates the ever-present void on jazz-rap fusion ‘How R U’, weaving a tale of modern dread and disassociation through vivid lyrical epigrams as airy horns lock in and out. With the fog of pandemic languor still shrouding us, it’s imperative we have soothsayers like DijahSB who make sense of being seen and unseen.

Meshell Ndegeocello – ‘The Atlantiques’

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An outtake from acclaimed Blue Note debut ‘The Omnichord Real Book’, ‘The Atlantiques’ is a collaboration between Meshell Ndegeocello, guitarist Jeff Parker, alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, and vocalist Anaïs Maviel. A sprawling prog-jazz fantasia, Ndegeocello’s mastery of vocal dioramas, and free-flowing exchange of energy through interplay, is on full display on a clarion call for liberation across the Trans-Atlantic subterranean blue.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain (@ShazSherazi)