“Assume Form” Album Review

James Blake has a way of going beyond the senses, creating not just a soundscape, but a pathos that is astoundingly hard to put into words. He floats between what can be heard and what can be felt in a way that very few musicians can. His newest offering, Assume Form, does just as it says. This album is not privy to the emotional impulses of James’s consciousness. It was not written purely of his expression or to meet his fans in the sea of emotion that is so hard to articulate and navigate. It is written for someone to understand and to begin a conversation. He wrote a love letter instead of his normal journal entry and it comes across as his most accessible and clear cut work to date.

Blake’s Past Work

For ten years, James Blake has been at the forefront of experimental pop music, blending an amalgamation of genres that would take too long to list. His musical thoughts and textures are incredibly unique. He has found a trademark sound defined by sparse, yet rich instrumentation that he continually pushes boundaries with. On his last full length release, The Colour in Anything, his approach was more fragmented and yearning. He seemed to be calling out for help, or attention, or to feel heard. In the back half of the tracklisting, he finds what he is looking for. So what does an artist do when he finally captures what he’s been chasing?

As opposed to an ending, his achievement starts him on a new journey. This is evident on “Meet You in the Maze”, the final cut of The Colour in Anything. James delves into discovering happiness in himself, finding solace in the maze of his mind and its intersections with reality. There is nothing more comforting than finding someone to take that journey of self discovery with you and we watch that process of exploration and teamwork unfold on Assume Form.

A New Journey

On the title track, he makes his intentions explicit: “I will assume form, I’ll be out of my head this time/I will be touchable by her, I will be reachable.” This is an audacious goal for someone often lost in clouds. I think he succeeds in this regard. His characteristically sparse and glitchy production is as strong as it’s ever been on Assume Form. But everything about this LP, from the song structure, to the lyrics, to the passion behind his words, seems decrypted. Hitting that target of accessibility is never easy but in doing so, did James give up some of the uniqueness in his sound?

Personally, I think he did. This album is very solid all the way through and he does have some tracks that push sonic and topical boundaries, e.g., “Tell Them”, “Barefoot in the Park”, “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow”, “Where’s the Catch?”, and “Don’t Miss It”. His features, other than Travis Scott, all lived up to their potential; Rosalía‘s performance on “Barefoot in the Park” is particularly memorable. But for the most part, Assume Form does not give as much to sink one’s teeth into relative to his previous releases. I have found a lot of replay-ability in the track, “Are You in Love?”, and “I’ll Come Too” but not the same complexity I am used to in his music.

I am curious to see if this idea changes for me over time but as it stands, this is Mr. Blake’s most consistent project and also his safest. Unfortunately, he set the bar quite high for himself with his previous work. I do not see Assume Form as a misstep by any means, with some amazing songs mixed in the tracklist. But with that said, I hope to see a return to more abstract thoughts and sounds in his next effort.

7.8/10

Octopus Project at Urban Lounge

Monday Night. In Utah, typically reserved for families, board games, and green Jell-O. For some they are better occupied listening to live music at Urban Lounge, Salt Lake City. Of course, I’ll choose the latter. Not too many people left their nieces and nephews on Jan 22 when The Octopus Project came to town. When I first walked in there were only about 10 other people, exactly the way I like it.

Intimate shows are the way to go. Small venues with the stage right in front of your face. No metal barriers dividing musicians and the audience.  This is how music should be played/watched. There are too many ultra-artists playing in those mega-domes and super-stadiums. And some guy payed $200 for him and his daughter to sit in section 317 row J. Anyway, enough with my rant. Back to the important stuff.

The first band was SLC natives Indigo Plateau. With two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals they have a pretty classic dream-pop/alt-rock sound. And they sound pretty good. Both guitarists use a variety of effects during song interludes creating a nice atmosphere. Their music doesn’t blow me away with originality but an altogether strong sound. They were a good opener, playing for about 30 minutes.

The second act was New Fumes from Dallas, TX. A single musician graced the stage. A guitar hung around their neck and was surrounded by a variety of electronic gismos and gadgets creating the rest of the music. The music was wildly experimental. The vocals were incomprehensible and drowned out by the sheer noise. You’d often loose sense of tempo and rhythm. It was on the verge of being something truly original and cool but wasn’t quite there.

Headlining the show was Octopus Project. I first heard about them through a friend just a few weeks prior. I looked them up on Spotify and really liked what I heard. They are an experimental neo-psychedelic band from Austin, TX with a noteworthy sound. On stage, they are incredibly talented. The four musicians move around from instrument to instrument, each playing multiple throughout their hour-long set. Three of them provide lead vocals on at least one song, but much of their music is instrumental. They seem to have a strong connection as a band and play off each other immaculately.

Octopus Project put it all into their performance. Band-member Josh Lambert opened the show saying, “I know it’s cold and it’s a Monday but let’s have a fucking awesome time together.”  And that we did. The crowd had grown considerably but was still sporadic. Nevertheless, people danced, whooped, and hollered. Yvonne Lambert played an electronic instrument called a Theremin, which is played without physical contact. All-in-all it was a delightful show with excellent music.

Music is often inspiring and can teach us important life lessons. But sometimes it doesn’t have a deeper meaning. Sometimes it’s just meant to be enjoyed. Seeing Octopus Project was a chance to simply enjoy some live music.

Moon Duo – Occult Architecture Vol. 1

This first release of the two volumes, which will be catalogued together as the band’s fourth record, takes on the Yin of Chinese philosophy – the Yang to be taken care of in vol. 2. Roughly translating to “the shady side of the hill,” the Yin in vol. 1 is used as a vessel to take on a more grim subject matter, moving through night and dark, bumping into ideas like how vague and black the world can be. This is all according to the duo themselves, Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada. They found themselves in the darkness of a Portland winter at the start of making this record, and having ended in the season of infectious scents that is a northwestern spring, they thought it would only make sense to evolve this record as winter to spring, night to day, dark to light – Yin to Yang.

Pigeonholing themselves in the genre of what they call “repeat-o rock” (their incessant repetition and uncompromising loop of riffs provides a cadence that probably first attributes to punk legends, Suicide) they surface their dark contemplations, batting off with “The Death Set.” Setting the stage for rest of the record’s ambience, the track contains relentless fuzzed out guitar, a beat you can coolly nod your head back and forth to, synths attacking from all directions and soft, yet demented, gospel-like vocals that keep you in tune with the evolution taking place. “Cold Fear” and “Will of the Devil” bring on more of the same allowing the band to flex their commitment and show that if something gets stuck in their heads it won’t be over for at least another five minutes. But it’s when we get to “Creepin” that perspective shifts a bit and listening to it you feel like you could be on some coastal highway zipping along the beach in a convertible. Ironically, given the dark tones and discrepancy of light within the rest of the album, this will probably be the composition that sticks with you come the end of the album. However, I might only think that because we are in the dead of winter and I could really use a beach. “Cross-Town Fade” and “Cult of Moloch” are great tracks that alleviate the bite from a cold breeze; the former surfaces the likely influence of Suicide bringing out old-school drum machines that compliment the playful synthesizers that might sound familiar if you’re into the Brooklyn art project Japanther, and the latter elevates the band to their most tenacious mode demonstrating a duel of two soloing guitars above the atmosphere of drum machines and fuzzed-out-guitars-on-repeat.

Vol. 1 comes to its conclusion, and where it will pivot to the Yang and sunny skies in Vol. 2, in “White Rose.” The track channels in with sound of ambient winds, almost like air moving through an indefinite valley, void of time and consequence, until the beat kicks in and you remember that you’re listening to a song. The song itself moves in and out of its gospel, clashing synths and guitar solos, but never let’s that beat stop. Not for a second. Not until the ambient winds return after 10 minutes and it fades away under the stiff breeze, and you’re once again lost. The winds push through the valley, revealing to your mind that they will come again, like all seasons – winter, spring, summer, fall, winter again – and that life is just a repetition of rotation of earth. Like the beat, the winds fade away and you’re back from void, but with all of this still realized, and it’s the moment this record ends that you understand that a good life isn’t a lack of repetition, but rather, an excess of variation that you can fade in and out of.