IDM, UKG and Buchla synths give Sam Shepherd's excellent new LP a newfound urgency and aggression.
On his new album, Crush, Shepherd sets aside that cautious perfectionism. Inspired by a recent tour with The xx, where he'd warm up for the band with a Buchla in "enormodomes" to crowds of 20,000 people, Shepherd wanted to capture in some form the "aggressive, obtuse music" from those unplanned half-hour sets. Crush, which came together in five weeks, reflects degrees of stress and urgency rarely heard in Shepherd's music. On "Falaise," strings, flute, French horn and other instruments turn on each other, then, with the Buchla as instigator, brawl in a heap. "Karakul"'s raw synth textures suggest electrical wires, soldered metal and fibreglass strips. And there are surprising nods to the sharper contours of '90s IDM and UK garage (a direction he signalled with a grime-adjacent stepper for the UK drill artist Headie One). On club tracks like the symphonic 2-step of "Anasickmodular," whose closing seconds seize up like a grease-clogged CD, the music finds itself either curdling, in conflict, or breaking down.
Is this sonic angst a reflection of a world or person in turmoil? Shepherd has alluded to a broad-strokes frustration at Brexit-stuffed newsfeeds, but the LP should also be understood as a strained dialogue between Shepherd and his temperamental equipment. To operate the Rhodes Chroma, which was otherwise "impossible to program," he hired an engineer to build an iPad app. The Buchla, another key instrument here, is famously unpredictable—Alessandro Cortini has described it as a "candle that burns very bright," but on days where it's not going smoothly he and other Buchla disciples possibly mutter something less flattering under their breath.
Occasionally, as on the two-part "Apoptose," the LP's low-key coda, the machines are simply left to run as they please. With other tracks, though, Shepherd extracts a determined focus from his unruly synths. On "Environments," a horn-like lead mournfully sways amid twitching percussion, initially as delicate as ash. (In this quiet phase, I was almost waiting for Thom Yorke's voice to crack through.) Once it gets going, the drums begin to ping off like tent pegs in a gale, while the sour synth chords respond at a slight remove from the squall.
This contrast between stoicism and chaos can give Crush a curiously level head. It means that tracks like "Requiem For CS70 And Strings" or "LesAlpx"—the former echoes Max Richter, the latter John Hopkins, both of whom occasionally succumb to sentimental turns—resist being pulled down by their own weighty emotions. But Crush insulates itself from a sterile equilibrium with an appealing dynamic range—on the one hand, the minimal, driving UKG of "Bias," and the understated Chroma lullaby of "Birth" on the other. In most cases, the strength of these tracks comes from an intuitive, off-the-cuff feel, which could also describe a few of Shepherd's best-loved hits—he made "Nuits Sonores" on a flight to the French festival, and "Vacuum Boogie" on a train from Manchester to London.
Will people fall in love with Crush? It might not appeal to those who crave a fun, catchy bassline like "People's Potential," and I'm not sure his live shows will suddenly fill up with Rephlex nerds. Though Crush can be serious-minded—"Sea-Watch" is a sombre tribute to a rescue ship captain who ferried 40 migrants to Italy—the LP finds Shepherd letting loose like never before, and that in itself is a delight. By most measures, Crush is an excellent record. But its aggression and obtuseness, for me at least, is relative—once the shock wears off, there remains a slight reserve, a sense that Shepherd's innermost rage has only fitfully overpowered competing aspects of his psyche. In worse circumstances—or with a faultier set of machines—we could have been presented with a Floating Points album called Destroy. Is it unfair to wonder how that might have sounded?