Up in Flames

(2003; Domino)

By Amir Nezar | 10 October 2007

So there I am. Plan 9. Looking around. I see the "Developing Artists" stand with CD's ripe for listening. I see Manitoba's Up In Flames. I've heard good things. I put on the head phones. I reel back.

The opening voice sample, refracted and time-lagged in its echoing, airy expanse, lays out over synth and horn tremulations (yes, I just invented that word) and a piano refrain, while a maraca type percussion barely holds together any kind of rhythm. "I lost track of all the time / And I keep waiting by the phone / Tonight is colder than your walls / and I just want to get you home," the voice breathes, while shuddering versions of it catch up. And then, it inhales, croons, and a concrete bass beat is introduced, to the flourishes of horns, blips, and bleeps, before all out gorgeous percussion crashes down on the waves of that sonorous voice, alternatively swelling and contracting. When it repeats, I can feel all my endorphins setting up at the starting line, ready to shoot through my veins as the voice's swell gives way to the incredible percussion. All of this is witnessed by the calmest, wavering, sampled piano and reserved cymbal brushes. The song finally recedes under sampled synths and horns with some final synth blips before it cuts out. So this song is called "I've Lived On A Dirt Road All My Life?"

I turn to the guy at the back desk, the dude who's gotta be 30, still has long hair, geeky glasses, and is so pasty white you'd lose sight of him if he was walking next to the walls in your house. You'd see a walking pair of pants, a plaid shirt, geeky glasses, grungy shoes, and a mop of nearly black hair, but no guy underneath. Anyways, I turn to this guy and I'm like:

"Dude. This is sweet."

Eloquent, no? Then again, the word for this album isn't "eloquent" anyway. The appropriate words run more along the lines of "inspired, messy, and glorious."

There's no elaborately obvious complexity here. Really, Dan Snaith, the mastermind behind the entity that is Manitoba, seems to have simply realized what makes pop moments brilliant, found a hundred or so of these moments, and then packed them into one 39 minute disc. It rides through, rocks your boat, and then leaves you dazzled and content.

By now I think it's relatively clear that this is electro-pop. But, in case you were wondering, "well, what about the other songs?" I'll elaborate that specifically, this is great electro-pop relying heavily on sampled organic instruments. How the hell this guy plans to reproduced this sound with a live collection of instruments is beyond me. If he can, by God, I want to see it.

The sheer lovely variation, within the pretty lines of pop, of course, is enough to make you swoon. From Deerhoof-esque moments to Boredoms explosions of sound to Squarepusher frenteticism, songs leap from hushed energy to joyous exclamations of mixed and clashing sounds, melding together organ harmonies with acoustic harmonies with string harmonies with horn harmonies with synth harmonies to form languorous waves of upbeat sound.

The beats here are varied and pure fun. "Hendrix with KO" begins its sweet course with layered, sampled vocals making their way down the ranges, spread like powdered sugar over a happily chugging beat. The voice ascends on the wings of a lilting flute and harp-chords, comes down, does it again, and the beat, more insistent and multi-tracked with drum machine variation, shoots through before cutting out. Then it changes to pure unadulterated bass-beat fun, accentuated by handclaps and organ drones, all interlocked around a synth hook. Brilliant stuff.

More heady pieces like "Jacknuggeted" explore more traditional emotive IDM feels, with subtle variations of tone and that inevitable sampled orchestra. Beach-evocative, it's the pure sound of summer and swirling blues and yellows.

"Kid You'll Move Mountains" embodies the Deerhoof-esque innocence of this record, and even better, the ingenious melanges of sound that hold every song here together throughout their messy and lovely tangents. Flutes and wind instruments flutter like crazy parrokeets around a heavy beat, cymbal crashes and the airy shockwaves of a sampled, hollow voice. Cripes, you can even here synth bleeps sampled to sound like birds. It's more complex than Deerhoof, and I'll say it right now, just plain sounds better.

So. Weaknesses? There must be some. There are some, but they are two in number. The first is that the variation of sound doesn't necessarily occur within songs as much as one might like, while the different songs of the record reaches to ridiculous sonic heights in all manner of forms. The only other semi-gripe I have is that a couple tracks on Up In Flames can sound an awful lot like, say, the Boredoms, or, to mention them again, Deerhoof. "Bijoux" in particular, emulates Deerhoof a whole damn lot, and wouldn't be out of place on Reveille in the least.

But that's all the griping I can put forward. Really, this is by a stretch one of the best albums I've heard all year. That it's so beautifully accessible and not a pain in the ass to unpack is only added sweetness to pure pop confectionery. Mmmmm. Tastes like happy.