November 21, 2011
Feature: Visual Nature – Balam Acab
“My music is made in the complete opposite way that chance composers made music. It’s all very calculated” explained Alec Koone in an interview with Pop Gun recently. Koone may not be a name familiar to those not acquainted with the spectral tones emanating from Brooklyn’s TriAngle Records stable. Even his stage name Balam Acab might only ring very faint bells in the dustier corners of the mind. Yet the Pennsylvania-born producer has been quietly creating some of the year’s greatest music direct from across the pond.
Despite not being old enough to legally drink in his homeland (the kid was born in the ‘90s!), Koone’s productions have a woozy feel, one that’s simultaneously warming and icy to the touch. The images conjured by the title of his stunning album debut, ‘Wander/Wonder’, are apt at a very literal level. Burial’s self-styled ‘night bus’ music is given an American tilt by the Pennsylvania native, with visions of wandering around the state’s wide open spaces, wondering at its contents.
If you’re yet to hear Balam Acab, let me try and explain what to expect (hopefully without prejudicing opinion too much). First of all, the name itself Koone took from a Mayan demagogue who was said to have used his powers to end a drought. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Koone’s sonic imagery is one of ice and water. It’s had reductive descriptors such as ‘witch house’ and ‘drag’ thrown at it, but these don’t help. Beats undulate like waves rocking an unconscious figure afloat on a vast sea (this is not just linguistic hyperbole, listen to ‘Apart’ from ‘Wander/Wonder’ and try to say otherwise), compiled from crisp, dry drum hits that usually come to rest in the lower echelons of the BPM scale. Great washes of synth and other discernable drones sit above these, with extended, warm bass notes smoothing the mix. And on top of it all are those aching vocal samples. Vocals are key to Koone’s work, while at the same time being obscured and unintelligible. This is no new production technique: countless artists use vocals as layers, building dense timbres without spotlighting their communicative meaning (it would be impossible not to refer back to Burial again at this point). Uniquely however, Koone’s angelic vocal samples are almost exclusively time-stretched and pitched way up the frequency range, coating his icy beats in a thin and unspoiled layer of snow: not Kanye West’s chipmunk soul, or the washed out echoes of Holy Other, but ethereal: spectral calls from distant voices, more yearning than eerie.
Last year’s ‘See Birds’ EP was the first release for both him and for Tri Angle Records – a tailor-made home for Balam Acab’s music, one full of like-minded contemporaries who share a creative approach: How to Dress Well, oOoOO and Clams Casino among them.
Koone comes from a generation that sees little division between influences, where ethics and compositional methods are inconsequential when sifting through the ether and pulling inspiration from Madlib’s hypnotic beats here, or Grouper’s ghostly vocal weaving there. Prioritising ambience over song structure or any form of narrative, these atmospherics are the raw foundation on which Balam Acab’s music is based. In an interview with Altered Zones earlier this year, Koone cites hip-hop and R&B as obvious starting points, but also the influence of drone music and folk on his work – these last two fully evident throughout ‘Wander/Wonder’.
There is also an unquestionable UK influence. As well as the obvious Burial comparisons previously made, and the production crossovers with label mate How To Dress Well, some elements of earlier Four Tet – not least the metronomic beauty of ‘My Angle Rocks Back And Forth’ from the ‘Rounds’ album – are clearly audible in the majesty of Koone’s music. Ninja Tunes associates Super Numeri’s had a love of all things ‘found sound’ and were keen users of the watery tones that permeate ‘Wander/Wonder’, and the supremely crafted ambient works of ISAN share much of its mood and gentle sway. Whether the inspiration is conscious or not, the otherworldly tone drifting through Lukid’s ‘Forma’ album has a direct lineage through ‘See Birds’ and beyond, and, although not strictly a UK influence, the bubbling geysers and crunching snow of Bjork’s ‘Vespertine’ find a new home in Koone’s soundscapes.
His remix choices are also impeccable. Lana Del Rey’s siren song ‘Videogames’ got an almost childlike reworking a couple of months ago, complete with breathy vocal lines and twinkling harps, while Twin Sister’s ‘Kimmi in a Rice Field’ dismantles the ‘80s synths of the original and reconstructs it with sweeping strings and tuned woodblocks, showing that the young producer is not afraid to expand his sound and build on his compositional skills.
Despite the visual nature of his music, Koone is reluctant to go down the arty video route for any of his tracks, and while photos of him are drastically blurred, you get the impression it’s through a genuine desire to stay anonymous and disconnected rather than the trappings of hipster cool. Unofficial, fan-made videos set to his music exist (the clip for ‘Oh Why’ perhaps the best of these), as well as the bizarre juxtaposition of ‘See Birds’ on an advert for L’Oreal starring Beyoncé.
It will be fascinating to see how Koone manages to convey the isolation and space in his work when he takes Balam Acab on the road this winter, beginning in the suitably snowy American northeast. Perhaps the addition of the female singer Koone promises for his live set will add a little human emotion to tracks from ‘Wander/Wonder’ and ‘See Birds’, whether that’s seen as a good or bad thing. However live audiences receive him, Balam Acab has, in ‘Wander/Wonder’, a contender for 2011 album of the year safely under his belt.
Read this feature in context over at HYPONIK