My first album of 2011. So infectious, I’m giddy with the prospect of holding its vinyl in my hands on release day – still a month off. James Blake set the blog frontier ablaze last year with two progressive leaps beyond the dubstep fray – the CMYK and Klavierwork EPs – but never gripped my attention, making my ears perk up, my spine tingle, quite like this. This self titled debut is easily this year’s (first) benchmark.
Holy hot shit.
Sorry. I just had to get that out.
This is a crystalline monstrosity, a tsunami flash frozen in place, looming overhead like a malignant glacier as we zoom in ever closer. To listen is to move across its surface, close enough to observe the essence of each facet like a diamond under microscope. Stripping his ‘post-dubstep’ production to its core and reflecting and amplifying each empty space against its sonic counterpart, the elemental touch only serves to enhance his latest evolution of vocal manipulation.
Leaving behind the extracted shards and melodic strings of vocal samples of prior releases, Blake’s voice runs the center of every track in a hall-of-mirrors chase with its own distorted reflection. Alternately disintegrating and exploding, submissive and dominating, his new showcase instrument even rises above digital manipulation entirely in rare moments of acoustic grace. On my first listen, this was akin to the moment your plane breaks through cloud cover, uncorking the brightness of the blazing sun on a rainy day. The final track in particular reaches an ascetic ideal, almost wholly a capella in execution. This isn’t what normally sates a beat-fiend looking for the newest fix, but it’s an exquisite rush all the same.
Speaking of a rush: second track The Wilhelm Scream is probably the key to my instant affection for this album. Opening with a plaintive synth line and echoed-at-God-level darkly winsome vocals, the song gradually fills in like final details on a vast canvas, a blueprint in miniature of Blake’s signature austerity. From an embryo of muted drum stabs and compressed guitar lines, Blake inflates a billowing dirigible, ascending past the atmosphere at its peak before swinging low with his most resonant phrase: I’m falling, falling, falling.. This shredded my perception of the artist and sent me hurtling towards the explosion that is Never Learnt To Share. When it hits for the first time, you’ll know what I mean.
If I had to place this album in a given context it would look like this: The detail oriented tactile feel of Mount Kimbie‘s exquisite production, taken to the spare extreme of The xx‘s striking debut last year. Multiplied by 50 on each side. Each click and hum, synth flutter, bass surge, and twisted vocal hook is used as if it were the last Blake would ever grasp. The soaring gospel towers this man constructs with so few pieces will take your breath away, and keep it. Nothing has sounded this meticulously airtight in a long while, and for good reason. It takes a rarefied amount of control to keep the plates spinning this way, and James Blake stands coolly alone for now.
Watch this and stay on the lookout by February 7th.