Thursday, July 7, 2016

album review: 'weval' by weval

I always feel like I'm behind the times when I talk about electronic music.

And look, I'm trying to keep up, but it's only getting more and more tricky when it feels like for every electronic record I cover I end up missing five. Which is kind of weird because I don't tend to get a lot of requests for electronic music outside of the mainstream crossover stuff, but I'm still trying to dig into the genre and find more stuff I like, and if strip-mining Pitchfork's critically acclaimed section helps me get to the stuff that might pick up more traction, I'll take it.

So let's talk about a record that dropped a week or so back and seemingly fell under everyone's radar, the self-titled debut album from electronic duo Weval. A pair of Dutch friends, they don't really identify under any specific electronic music subgenre but from I was able to dredge up you could probably put them close to the spacier, more wiry side of deep house, or at least that was what I picked up when I took a look at their 2013 Half Age EP. It certainly isn't the most experimental electronic music I've ever heard, but there was a melodic consistency and chill sandy vibe that I quite enjoyed. So while I doubted this record might replace Jamie xx's In Colour as my go-to summer electronic album, I gave their self-titled debut a try - what did I find?

This is the sort of electronic album I like finding - not a masterpiece, but for the right environment, this record will play very well. In this case, I can see slotting Weval's self-titled debut into any party with friends who are into the more relaxed but weird side of deep house and they'd probably adore it... although I do question outside of that laid-back vibe how much this replay value this album has. But Weval is a solid start: cohesive, with a distinctive sound that does enough to call back to its influences without being defined by them, and ultimately with more standout moments than fumbles.

And that part is actually a little surprising when you consider the synth melodies that Weval utilizes. While I like the wiry oscillating tones that can spiral towards chiptune or gurgle towards lower, bassy patters, most of the chords that compose the melodies seem a tad off. Be they the oddly tuned guitars on 'Square People' or the synths on 'Just In Case', there are very few major fourths or fifths on this record and frequently tones that feel like they're on the cusp of sliding off-key as they switch up, mostly sticking to diminished or minor chord changes that perpetually gives this record a feeling of relaxed unease. If In Colour was intended for the afternoon stage at the festival leading into the evening, Weval is when it slips past dusk towards night - and yet a lot of the actual textures on these songs help ease the melodies in surprisingly well. The bass beats range between oily on 'I Don't Need It' to a sandy thickness that matches well with the percussion, which is easily the highlight of this record with great crisp cymbal tones and solid midrange grooves that fizz and crackle on the edges, but always feel rounded enough to not disrupt the vibe. Take the borderline tropical vibe on 'The Battle' as the mix fades in and out of negative space like an Arca track, or how the drums manage to support the careening spray of synth on 'Madness', or the wiry pluck playing off the thinner skitter on 'You're Mine'. The absolute best grooves come on the final two tracks, 'You've Made It Pt. II' and 'Years To Build', the former supported by a really solid textured groove that breaks into a progressive blast of drumming on the final minute that comes out of nowhere and is awesome, the latter playing off a rougher line that eventually matches the sandy presence and holds the vocal gutpunch incredibly well.

Yeah, I should mention the vocal snippets here, the majority of which are pulled from KW Toering and are quite agreeable even they aren't entirely comprehensible. That seems like more of a compositional choice, and it's clear that Weval are giving their ghostly presence enough to be audible but never quite enough to distract as they ebb in and out, or on the case with My Larsdotter on 'Days' chopped into fragments. I'm on the fence of how well this works, though - many of the vocals often feel like they might land with more satisfying impact if the synth was on tune with them, especially on 'Ways To Go' or 'Days', especially when that extremely ugly synth comes in for the outro, it doesn't fit at all. You get much stronger results like the slightly more layered fragments on 'You're Mine', or the vocoder on 'Years To Build'. Granted, when you do get as many vocal fragments, you also start wondering about lyrics... and really, there's not a lot to go by. The most striking lines seem to imply a sense of throwing off consequences and cutting loose, finding separate paths to take... but then there's 'Years To Build', which features one of the most cutting moments on the record, repeating the line 'it takes years to build up something when you try' - and then abruptly the line shifts to 'it takes years to build up something then you DIE'. The mix stops suddenly, and the question of whether it was all worth it hangs as the mix slowly reassembles. It's a creepy moment, but I'd argue it sticks pretty effectively.

And that's really how I'd describe most of this record, because it really shouldn't work quite as well as it does for me. I don't normally have a lot of tolerance for melodic progressions this atonal and warped, but Weval manages to draw them together with smart composition and a cohesive commitment to groove that I can definitely respect. Again, I'm not sure how often I'll listen to this or in how many environments it'd play, but I can definitely respect it for having a distinctive sound and identity. So for me, I'm thinking a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're into the more experimental side of deep house that's still pretty accessible. More often than not, I'll take it.

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