Laura Mvula: Pink Noise (Atlantic Records) ****
Hartnoll & Young: The Virus Diaries (Hartnoll & Young Records) ***
Nick Rhodes and Wendy Bevan: Astronomia II: The Rise of Lyra (Tape Modern) ***
The Go! Team: Get Up Sequences Part One (Memphis Industries) ****
As live shows cautiously come around again after fifteen months of furlough, music fans will have their own wishlist of artists they are especially eager to check out in a venue, field or tented pavilion near them. If Laura Mvula is on that list – and why wouldn’t she be? – then rejoice mightily for two reasons: she is one of the big attractions of the Edinburgh International Festival’s contemporary music programme, and there was a time, about five years ago, when she considered, then rejected premature retirement.
Dropped by her label after two critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums of baroque soul, Mvula contemplated a return to music teaching. But a new deal and a new electronically-inclined sound, inspired by her support slot on David Byrne’s life-affirming American Utopia tour, reinvigorated this distinctive, stylish player.
Never short on colour and character, she returns with the dayglo riot of Pink Noise, adding shades of Prince and Janet Jackson to her existing palette of imaginative arrangements and polyphonic incantation. There is an inescapably Eighties flavour to the slick chiming synths of opening track Safe Passage which has escalated to full-on lycra-with-headband-and-legwarmers attitude by the time she reaches flashdancing finale Before the Dawn.
Her trademark sense of rhythm permeates the album’s singles, from her staccato vocal and intertwined backing chorus on Church Girl, to the celebratory funk fanfare of Got Me, which rocks groovily like Bad-era Michael Jackson.
Remedy is a summer tonic with breathy falsetto, undulating synthesizers and compressed bursts of brass, but Mvula also suits the slow jams. Magical is slick R&B with a touch of blue-eyed soul, while luminous ballad Golden Ashes is spiced with lyrical bite, vocal whoops and ecclesiastical interludes.
All are welcome to the party – even Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil makes an unexpected guest vocal appearance on What Matters and takes to the smooth synth environment like a man in a flamingo pink suit.
Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll and poet Murray Lachlan Young join forces to pen The Virus Diaries, which begins with a fairly grim flashback to the anxiety of a world on the verge of lockdown and then injects some gently satirical humour as Young skewers his middle class pandemic pre-occupations regarding online shopping, takeaway coffees, lockdown haircuts and the pressure to take up new hobbies. Hartnoll soundtracks his pandemic perspective with ambient synthscapes, a more extrovert Pet Shop Boys synth pop style on I’m Going Shopping and the outright electro funk of Home Schooling to create an album of snapshots to look back on in mild disbelief.
Duran Duran keyboard maestro Nick Rhodes and LA-based vocalist/violinist Wendy Bevan also formed a pandemic partnership, creating 52 instrumental pieces divided over four albums to document the plague year. The first release of their Astronomia series, The Fall of Saturn, marked the spring equinox and now The Rise of Lyra hails the summer solstice, with additional biblical and mythological references deployed to prog rock effect.
The Rise of Lyra is indeed an out-of-this-world suite, courtesy of Rhodes’ cosmic keyboards and Bevan’s angelic soprano vocalisation, ranging from the suitably celestial electronica of Cat’s Eye Nebula and twinkling chords of An Argonaut’s Dream to the pizzicato strings and weightless synths of The Charm of Orpheus. This is far out from planet Earth.
Brighton outfit The Go! Team remain as up-and-at-’em as ever on their latest album of exuberant patchwork sounds. Get Up Sequences Part One literally sounds like an aerobic routine on the go-faster instrumental Freedom Now and old school cheerleader hip-hop of Pow. Elsewhere, mainman Ian Parton’s deep dive into record collection samples yields a bright, optmistic summer symphony of pastoral flutes, ska horns and steel drums.
Duruflé: Complete Organ Works (King’s College Recordings) *****
Maurice Duruflé (1902-86) was one of the most distinctive voices of France’s dynastic line of 20th century organ composers, yet he wrote so little that Thomas Trotter, on the organ of King’s College Cambridge, manages to fit the whole oeuvre into this single CD. Strangely, it’s the relative trifles that stand out as memorable gems – the oriental modality of Méditation, the fantastical will o’ the wisp wildness of the mercurial Scherzo, Op 2, and the meandering folksiness of Chant Donné (En Hommage á Jean Gallon). But these are also perfect palate cleansers to the greater heft and intensity of the formidable Prélude Et Fugue Sur Le Nom d’Alain (brilliantly articulate yet mesmerisingly fluid), the infinitely inventive Prélude, Adagio Et Choral Varié Sur Le Thème Du Veni Creator, and the Suite Op 5, whose three movements conquer the full expressive expanse of the instrument. Trotter’s playing is precise yet dramatic, compellingly colourful. Ken Walton
Duncan Lyall: Milestone (Red Deer Records) *****
In-demand double-bassist and producer Duncan Lyall forsakes his upright for bass guitar and electronica, including the Moog synthesiser which permeates much of this vividly realised Celtic Connections commission, though not to the detriment of choice collaborators including Lori Watson and Patsy Reid on fiddles, electric guitarist Chas Mackenzie and drummer Stuart Brown.
There’s a widescreen sonic landscape to much of it, not least in the opening Wind in the Trees with its sighing synths and warm strings over Angus Lyon’s rolling piano chords and Watson’s haunting vocals; Jarlath Henderson’s uilleann pipes break through the tidal rush of Barnacarry Bay, while the fast-travelling Titan, celebrating Glastonbury Festival, lifts off into a heady, orbital spin, Moog quavering over insistent beats.
A highlight touches traditional base with the spookily atmospheric Twa Corbies, Watson’s singing and vocalising melling with electronic clicks and hisses before a surprisingly upbeat and lyrical resolution. Jim Gilchrist
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