Besides a couple of singles and a contribution to Keysound’s compilation-cum-mission statement ‘This Is How We Roll’, E.m.m.a hasn’t released an awful lot of music so far, so her debut album lands without the usual few years of expectation that many dance music producers have built up by the time they release an LP. Which is probably just as well – for a lot of people, ‘Blue Gardens’ will be their introduction to E.m.m.a’s world, and any prior anticipation would only dilute the impact of hearing such a complete – and completely weird – record.
Boil it down to its basic components and ‘Blue Gardens’ is an album that takes the rhythmic templates of funky, grime, garage and other UK sound system musics and applies colourful synth melodies. In that respect it’s not dissimilar to the wonky/purple producers that started to surface around 2008 – Ikonika, Rustie, Guido, etc – artists that E.m.m.a says that she felt an affinity with in the accompanying press material for ‘Blue Gardens’. Indeed, if ‘Blue Gardens’ had been released at that time it would doubtless have been considered a part of this movement, but listening in 2013 it’s clear that these comparisons aren’t quite adequate.
For starters, E.m.m.a’s music is much more basic, trimmed down to the most simple elements and rarely venturing beyond her chosen formula – a 130BPM template, drum track, bass synth, main synths – across the album, save for its olde worlde intro and outro. But it’s also because her sound doesn’t really seem to owe itself to anything – there’s not really much that resembles ‘Blue Gardens’. The melodies are unconventional and often don’t seem intended for the rhythms they’re applied to, as if the drum tracks and synth tracks were written separately and stuck together at the end– a track like Mood Ring would be just as satisfying if it were beatless, for example – yet somehow the final result makes perfect sense despite its disregard for form or functionality. Even the rhythms, which seem mostly based on UK funky, aren’t quite funky. They bear a resemblance, but they’re a strange in-between, like on the crooked Dream Phone VIP, a lunatic club track with a kinked 3/4 rhythm which seems to make less sense the more you listen.
Make no mistake – ‘Blue Gardens’ is an unusual album, but it’s certainly not obtuse or inaccessible. Words can’t really satisfactorily surmise some of the reactions to it, but those reactions are often contradictory, anyway – the synths are colourful, yet the mood is dark; it sounds thoroughly modern yet there’s a weird sense of nostalgia running through it, and that nostalgia seems like a human nostalgia rather than a retro-musical one. But it’s good to hear a bewildering record that elicits an uncertain reaction rather than a staid, predictable genre exercise, especially when it seems to just drop out of the (ahem) blue like this.
Keysound released 'Blue Gardens' on July 29th.