Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bullion - Loop The Loop (2016)

The album can be freely streamed in its entirety here. (Highly recommended listening to on a decent pair of headphones, smashed. –MR)

“Pop, not slop!” proclaims the tagline of DEEK Recordings, London-based indie label run by Nathan Jenkins AKA Bullion.  Indeed so. Since its establishment in 2012, in-house producer and mixing engineer Jenkins has developed a distinctive brand of sophisticated off-kilter pop, a unique and uniform “DEEK sound”. Home to underdogs such as electric oddball Never, funky techno wizard Thool and the immensely talented singer-songwriter Laura Groves, DEEK has evolved into a kind of refuge for West London’s eccentric pop masterminds under Bullion’s watchful guidance.

Ever since being first exposed to Groves’ brilliant Committed Language EP early last year, the label has become the object of my ongoing fascination. Looking into the history of its steersman, I was delighted to discover that Bullion is a not-at-all unknown name in the underground electronic circles. His 2007 bootleg Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee garnered significant online attention, mixing snippets of well-known Beach Boys motifs together with sampling and drum programming not unlike the late hip-hop legend (who had passed away the year before). Since then, Jenkins has produced a string of releases on various imprints before settling on his own label. His chillwave-influenced 2009 EP Young Heartache stands out as an example of the early Bullion sound. The idiosyncratic, playful and adventurous style of sample processing is complimented by Jenkins’ natural knack for groovy and danceable beats, all the while drawing inspiration from the likes of Frank Zappa, Robert Wyatt, Steve Hackett, John Martyn and who knows what other 70’s one-man-bands nobody has even heard of. Judging by his radio shows and mix-tapes, the man's frame of reference is tremendous. (By the way, can anyone who is reading this identify the vocal sample used here? MR). As a production nerd myself, I could not help becoming obsessed over the technicalities of how he sculpts his signature sound.

2011 saw the release of the critically acclaimed “non-LP” You Drive Me To Plastic, which showcased the now experienced producer’s trademark style of sample-orientated musical composition, yet also signalled a change in direction. A previously unknown facet of the Bullion character was revealed when he began using his voice in songs and devoted more time to getting better at singing, writing lyrics and recording instruments. His first release under DEEK – Love Me Oh Please Love Me EP – unveiled Jenkins’ remarkable gift for songwriting and melody, while Rooster EP from 2015 reassured his fans that he has not forgotten his roots in quirky club music. I suppose a proper full-length album was a long-awaited natural conclusion to such an impressive track record. After having followed Bullion’s and his label’s doings with near-religious fervour for over a year, Loop The Loop was indeed of my most anticipated releases this year.

Still, even though it came out in February, I kept postponing giving the album a good start-to-finish listen until only a few days ago. A teaser of the title track was made public mid-winter, but I had ambiguous feelings about it. Instead of the sample-based trip-hop producer I knew of, this masked Bullion character, I suddenly came face to face (or mouth to ear?) with a flesh and bone human being, a sensitive soul with genuine feelings to sing about:

When you went loop the loop
The spiral stopped the fly
The people looking at you
All you can see is the sky
People talk down to you
All you know is sky

The second "single" – Get To The Heart Of It – had a similarly melancholic vibe. Jenkins’ frail voice singing about things like “striving to be a part of it” and “constantly thinking over it” in a kind of self-deprecating r’n’b slow jam was not how I would have expected the record to sound like. At least he still knows how to craft a decent sub-bass, I thought to myself. So I tried to escape getting disappointed. I was afraid the album was going to be s**t.

Despite everything, I eventually gave the whole thing a go and was amused to find that sunny mid-June Tartu turned out to be a strangely fitting environment in which to experience the album. The opening track – Dip Your Foot – features the talented violinist Sarah Anderson, a frequent Bullion collaborator, whose brand of oriental string melodies have adorned DEEK releases since the first single of the in-label band Nautic (Jenkins, Groves and bassist Tic Zogson) back in 2012. The Far Eastern themed tribal beats bear a striking resemblance to the kind of music Ratatat used to produce six years ago. Still, with a sense of nostalgia for Nautic’s signature sound (Jenkins’ best work to date in my opinion), I could not dislike the song even if I tried.

However, Bullion’s introspective narrative is firmly established in track number two – Health:

I'm so passive I hate to be
Things keep making their way past me
Missed those chances that I should take
I must be clever it's for my own

It is clear that Jenkins is eagerly trying to convey a personal emotional message on his debut. It almost feels like a story of the man’s quest for self-transcendence. Escape the loop of fruitless rumination. Get out of your head and start making changes in reality. Pass down the valuable lessons learned in life. You can hold the key! However, the type of surfy and plastic sound Bullion is striving for makes for an odd companion to the lyrical content. The emotion does not have the kind of authentic impact that for example Morrissey's voice has when singing things like “I never had a job because I’m too shy”, partnered with Johnny Marr’s moody guitar riffs.

Nevertheless, the album continues with a beautiful sequence of two minimal, mostly instrumental pieces. The first of which – My Lar – sees Anderson’s distinctive string passages explode into a glorious 80’s synthesizer pop celebration reminiscent of True Blue era Madonna. Unless, the next track, is my personal highlight of the first half of the album.  Its hauntingly alluring synth hook comes back around in the song’s final third in a superb exercise of the ABA musical form.

In Self Capering, Bullion returns to the self-examining tone set out in Health. Again, the careless summery vibe of the track creates a strange yet captivating dichotomy with what the author is attempting to say. On the other hand, Never Is The Change, the truest dance song on the record, is a ridiculously catchy rhythmic journey, featuring a keyboard solo that would make Donald Fagen proud (performed by label-mate and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Hackett). Its energetic beat beautifully compliments Bullion’s positively life-affirming message:

Rarely is the change you make from A to B
Try a different groove to see
You can hold the key

Speed begins with the most simplistic hook on the album, nearly crossing the border over to the senseless land of novelty music (that Jenkins himself claims to hold in disdain). Todd Rundgren’s over-the-top synthesizer experiments from the early 80’s come to mind. Still, in a way that is developing into a kind cyclically reoccurring phenomenon on his debut, Bullion keeps inserting into his music something of such unusually inventive quality, that it forces the listener to reinterpret the whole song in a new light. In this case, the playfully blunt words of Speed, introduced in the track’s breakdown, transform something that began as a mildly annoying novelty etude into a fully credible dance-floor adventure.

The album starts losing pace at this point, as the solemn Get To The Heart Of It is followed by perhaps the weakest link of the album – Palm 2. As Jenkins continues with his life observations, the pun-driven Peep Hole ("What did you expect to get from them?”) treads dangerously close to slapstick territory. Yet again, however, he manages to meticulously navigate his way around it with some unexpected chord changes and clever command of harmony. The album’s title track pulls the listener back to a more serious ground again.

As his debut nears its end, Jenkins finally demonstrates his full potential with It’s No Spirit, the album’s most authentic representation of the classic Bullion sound that earned him his reputation. The heavy, brooding atmosphere and dream-like vocals (aided by Groves), weighed down by the relentless energy of the drums, make this my personal favourite track on the record. In another sudden change of tone, Jenkins draws his personal journey to a close with FoYoC ("Float On Your Own Cloud"). The youthfully innocent and uplifting tune, complete with a soundscape of ocean waves gently caressing the tropical coast, provides a fitting resolution to the momentum that the whole album had been building up to. Brian Wilson would nod approvingly as the spiritually awakened Jenkins ties the knot:

Live on your own land
Take all that you can
Soak up your own love
Sell out your own self

It’s the sound of the summer.

To the ones who are still reading this painfully analytical deconstruction of Bullion’s debut, I have to admit that Loop The Loop is a strange album. Its quirky pop melodies and novelty instrumentation combined with the Jenkins’ introspective musings make for an unusual listening experience. It does not come as surprise that the man spent at least two years fine-tuning and readjusting the record before settling on its final form. Possible (or projected?) feelings of inadequacy may have made their way into the musical. Some of the album’s wilder excursions still leave an uncomfortable sense of inconsistency and there could have been better ways to glue the tracks together into a coherent whole.

Nevertheless, Bullion delivered a strong selection of avant-garde electro-pop, that keeps growing on me more and more. It should certainly be listened through repeatedly to be able to fully appreciate the intricate details and nuances hidden inside the complex crevices of Loop The Loop. Jenkins has succeeded in honing his trademark “DEEK sound” into perfection with this one. Years of personal exploration and effort put into finding his distinctive musical language have finally blossomed and borne fruit. In his own record company, free from any external pressures or restrictions to creative self-expression, Mr. Jenkins has accomplished something oddly beautiful.


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