After a year in which everything has been turned upside down, it’s fitting that the first song on Snowpoet’s third album begins with backwards vocals, fragments of words that only gradually coalesce into a repeatable melody above shivers of piano, synth and mechanistic drums.
Whatever, it is, it’s not Jazz. You’ll hear the J word bandied about a lot in connection with Snowpoet. Vocalist Lauren Kinsella was Jazz FM’s vocalist of the year in 2016, and sax player Josh Arcoleo, drummer Dave Hamblett and pianist Matt Robinson are all active players in what’s currently a very vibrant UK jazz scene. But theirs is not the jazz of sharp ninths and long solos.
When combined with the production talents of Chris Hyson – with Kinsella, the other half of Snowpoet’s songwriting duo – it’s nimble small ensemble playing that retains the loose, improvised feel of jazz, with the expanded sonic palette of electronica.
So yes, that first song – Roots – has a sax solo. But it emerges from a haze of processed drums and flurries of synth and scattered vowels, with Kinsella intoning “We are in a movement that’s failing us now; are we expected to just accept what you say?” before the track dissolves into shards of saxophone and guitar.
The straightforward acoustic arrangements of the band’s previous album ‘Thought You Knew’ are much scarcer here, and the electronic elements more prominent. The flurries of ascending synths on A Chance To Hear The Rain have a vaguely R&B flavour, the riff from With You sounds like a robotic version of Message In A Bottle, and the four-to-the-floor kickdrum in many of the tracks is an obvious lift from electronic music.
One of the quietly remarkable things about ‘Thought You Knew’ was the way the foreground elements – Kinsella’s melodies, Hamblett’s drumming – sat against a faint wash of ambience, of vocal harmonies drawn out so long that they no longer sounded human, or reverb tails extended and meshed into pad-like textures. On ‘Wait For Me’, that technique is taken much further, with the washes and ambiences themselves becoming foreground elements.
The treated piano on Sky Thinking sounds as though it’s a field recording rescued after decades of tape degradation. On Tiers, Arcoleo’s saxophone echoes through a fuzzed, breathy delay that elongates and stretches it as though it were an object falling into a black hole. Kinsella’s vocals themselves become atomised, scattered into random phonemes that judder from speaker to speaker on The Wheel.
Where this works, it gives a sense of deep attention to sound for sound’s sake, with the musicians turning their attention inwards to the textures of each breath and note, as though hearing the background noise in a suddenly quiet city. The whole album has a gorgeous, lustrous density in which every space is filled with sonic matter, and it speaks of hours of careful production rather than the looser, more freely-extemporised textures of ‘Thought You Knew’.
And there’s the problem. Although the textures of ‘Wait For Me’ are lusher, paradoxically they’re not bigger, and that attention to the inner ear at times feels claustrophobic. Great ambient music is often a conjuring of ghosts: it has the poignancy of a memory irrevocably past.
On ‘Wait For Me’, the effect is too often the opposite, with ambiences working as thwarted build-ups rather than as poignant fallings away. Many of the tracks start or end with extended intros or outros that dissipate rather than gather energy, and the frequent use of spoken word mantras becomes repetitious.
That sense of thwarted motion also carries through to Kinsella’s lyrics. On ‘Thought You Knew’, the words of It’s Already Better Than OK had a genuine philosophical depth. On ‘Wait For Me’, the vocal textures of The Wheel are undeniably beautiful, but their words are merely bland modern mindfulness: “Looking in, looking on, looking through, looking down, close your eyes and breathe”.
On Early Feelings, the phrase “I live in the city of London” is spoken over and over, but without a sense of what that life or that city are like. And if ever there was a time to re-examine and re-articulate the experience of being alive in London, it’s now, after 18 months in which the city has been transformed.
Ultimately, for all that the album’s sonic horizons are expansive, its music and words feel oddly constrained and emotionally remote. Where Wait For Me taps into emotion more directly, as it does on the soaring choruses of Sky Thinking, there’s an immediate sense of release, as though we’d suddenly zoomed out from a close shot to a sweeping landscape.
The temptation to view every album from 2020 through the frame of the pandemic has to be guarded against. Nevertheless, this feels like one where the distance between the band members is reflected in a distance in the music. It’s technically marvellous, but leaves us yearning for closer contact.