Tuesday, October 29, 2019

album review: 'FIBS' by anna meredith

When I first covered Anna Meredith back in 2016, I had no idea what to expect. I had been in a bit of a dry spell when it came to album releases at that point in the year, and here comes a classical composer with a few associations with James Blake but rapidly making a strident name of her own with a project that seemed to win over every critic that heard it... and yeah, I was one of them. I still hold that project Varmints as damn near ground-breaking in its usage of morphing syncopation and groove with classical bombast and twisted electronics, and when you paired it with solid writing, it wound up as one of the best albums of that year.

And ever since then, it seemed like Meredith's trajectory accelerated: she provided the score for Bo Burnham's feature film Eighth Grade - which rightly deserved all the critical acclaim it got - and that same year she also released the project Anno, an extended interpolation of Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons suite that may have felt a little too beholden to the original composition to truly take off, but still wound up being pretty damn potent all the same. But with a new project of original material - and with the expectation that I'd probably be the only one covering her on this platform yet again - I really wanted to get ahead of this, so how was FIBS?

You know, when I reviewed Anna Meredith's full-length debut three years ago, I highlighted how it represented the sort of genre fusion that felt incredibly difficult to categorize - too many rock elements for the classicists, too much shuddering electronic experimentation for the rockists, and while there's always been a pop focus in making these tunes uncannily catchy, a classical composition style with shifting cadences, huge crescendos, and strange juxtapositions is not going to win over most pop audiences. But if you can wrap your head around all of these styles mashed into one composite whole... I have to be honest, I loved this about as much as I did Varmints, this album is so strikingly unique and not only do they touch up the elements I was lukewarm on before, we only have a tighter and catchier project this time around! Without question I can call this one of the best of the year... although whether this project quite hits as hard as Varmints given it had the benefit of surprise and some of the most striking dramatic climaxes I've heard in electronic music, that might be a different question.

But let's start with elements that have improved in the past few years, specifically surrounding the vocals. I think at some point Meredith and her male costar realized that the thinness in their upper register and falsettos needed to be reinforced, so the vocals are stacked higher and layered with more colour and diversity. And while some of that willowy nature still comes through - it always feels like a bit of a strange juxtaposition compared to how heavy and frenetic Meredith's arrangements can feel - better mix placement and production touches give them just enough body to ride against those grooves without getting swallowed, from the liquid smoothness against the jittery swell of 'Inhale Exhale' to the stunning melodic interplay against the richer tones of 'Killjoy' that I could swear was taking cues from 'A Thousand Miles' by Vanessa Carlton - and yes, that's a compliment! More importantly is capturing that yearning sincerity that has always been Meredith's secret weapon in the songwriting: she's too world-weary and mature to properly break through of old memories and figures of the past who haunt her, but man, she so desperately wants to break past her overthought world and embrace those shining moments - think a parallel to artists like Robyn and especially Imogen Heap, who I'd describe as her closest peer in this multi-genre space. And that makes sense when you think about why this album is called FIBS - lies, but pretty white lies that we all tell ourselves to salve our ego and think we're going to stay on the right track. And yet they are still lies, so the internal back-and-forth of 'Killjoy' highlights the warring voices and 'Divining' has enough detail to show how they've skewed any thoughts going forward slightly askew. It's why 'Ribbons' highlight the subtle, pretty, but binding ties that her spirit dearly wants to sunder even as they tie her ego and sense of self together - not that far removed from lyrical metaphors Lorde used on Melodrama - but it's also why the final track 'Unfurl' takes the biggest risk in literally cutting loose and letting it all come free, as she knows something is bound to break but it better not be her, taking the ultimately downbeat themes and subtext of Varmints and framing her path now as more hopeful. 

And that absolutely translates to the sound and production of the album as a whole, which Meredith has described not so much as part two to Varmints, but more like Varmints 2.0 - a similiar approach and even sonic palette, but expanding the synth textures, deepening the instrumentation, and ratcheting up the momentum and melodic complexity. And that's where the biggest improvements come with FIBS, which at its slowest and most reserved moments could feel a little wispy, a few compositions a bit undercooked. FIBS, to the contrary, is almost garish for how much colour is tightly woven into these compositions: the blasting treble keys opening 'Sawbones' until the gurgling synth bass seethes around it before the drums pick up into gleaming chiptune cascades, the fat low horns that squonk into 'Bump' before grainy synths, a choppy groove, and a power-drill grind of guitar fractures them into one hell of a blazing finale, the elongated strings gliding off the jittery keys as the deeper groove strides in on 'moonmoons' that ends surprisingly pretty in its final moments, to the dense cascading stutter of 'Paramour' with some flat out insane drumwork that kicks into a slice of gooey synthrock that features plenty of arranged bombast to suck you across its grand melodic flourishes, especially in the horns and that guitar solo! Hell, there's an overblown rock track called 'Limpet' that, while I must admit I wish the rhythm section was a little more dynamic, the synths had a little more body even coming off that galloping drum passage and it didn't sound SO much out of a very specific tone in the mid-90s, still has more flavour than a lot of mainstream rock right now and kicks a fair amount of ass! Hell, I'd say the only song that feels underwhelming as a whole is 'Divining' given how spare and elegant it is, and even then that percussion build-up off the strings for the close is impressive! And then we get the cuts closest to pop, and while I'd also say 'Ribbons' is also pretty minimalist, between the subtle synth burbles, the liquid guitars, and gentle percussion before the piano cascades slide in, it's just bright and restrained enough to click. And that noisy hammering groove of 'Inhale Exhale' when combined with its melodic crescendos might as well be one of the most starkly manic and exuberant pop songs I've heard all year! But at the same time, Meredith can still slow things down with the glassy warps and lonely reach of 'Unfurl' - a beautiful coda to an album with so much vivid colour that its spare restraint hits perfectly.

So look, as a whole FIBS is the sort of absolutely terrific slice of genre-blending electronic music that will not be for everyone, but for an audience who can key onto its wavelength will find something gloriously special. Beautifully produced - the fact that there is so much in the way of dynamics and crisp instrumental texture sounds wonderful to my ears with impeccable balance - excellently written, amazingly tight and complex in its composition but still able to deliver a real hook, albums like this place Anna Meredith in a unique class that deserves a ton of praise. So if you can't tell by now, 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations... but I will repeat the same thing I said with Varmints, this will not be for everyone. But if anything I described sounds up your alley... yeah, you'll have fun with this. Enjoy!

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