Album Review: Oliver Coates - Shelley's On Zenn-La
Experimental musician Oliver Coates has been floating about the alternative scene for a while now, having featured on cello for Johnny Greenwood, worked collaboratively with Mica Levi, and put out his own solo material – amongst several other credits for esoteric classical recordings. While his previous album Upstepping and the Levi collaboration Remain Calm may have given some inkling of Coates’ idiosyncratic compositional style, his new album (and first for RVNG Intl.), Shelley’s On Zenn-La, takes it to new dimensions.
If you think the cover art looks like a secret transmission back from an alien planet, then you’re on the right track. Shelley’s On Zenn-La imagines the legendary and now shuttered Stoke-on-Trent nightclub Shelley’s Laserdome on a planet called Zenn-La, where it lives a second life in a totally new environment. That might sound quite Kurt Vonnegut-esque, and it’s not the last time you might be reminded of the American author’s unique alien visions as you travel through Shelley’s On Zenn-La.
The album features a bright and unreal atmosphere, described practically by Oliver Coates as “how one tone is enriched by another tone modulating the first, resulting in gleaming sets of new harmonics,” and carried out by “placing live cello playing into a chain of antagonism resulting in sounds [he] found beautiful.” To the layman, that means sounds and textures both warm and electronic bouncing off each other in ways that judder and wobble like ripples in neon jelly. Often it’s hard to make out whether the sounds are analogue or synthesized; take the opening sound on the album in ‘Faraday Monument’ for instance, a low hum as we come into land on Zenn-La in, that could just as easily have been made by cello or a particular synth patch – perhaps both in combination.
This use of sounds that are familiar but just slightly and eerily off is the characterising feature of the ambitiously forward-thinking tracks that make up Shelley’s. Chief among these is the constant popping and burbling, both from the percussive and melodic elements. Coates truly makes it feel like we’re in an atmosphere where sound does travel in more globular shapes, or gliding ones that ooze through the rounder sounds. Female vocals are often in the mix, but actual words are rarely distinguishable; instead the voices are used teasingly, mingling with the beats and pushing through them in ways that are alluring like the call of Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.
In ‘A Church’, chrysanthemum bear’s vocals illuminate the anti-gravity architecture of Coates’ creation, opening up a haunting space where quivering undertones combine gracefully with fragile drum tracks. The middle section shows us what the titular nightclub Shelley’s On Zenn-La is like at peak hour; ‘Charlev’ jolting up the energy with its synth patterns zig zagging across a plonking and resounding beat, once again chrysanthemum bear’s chopped vocals sound hazardous and hypnotic. ‘Norinn Radd Dreaming’ is decompressed acid techno, kicking forward on blocky bass drums which underlie buzzing fluorescent synths and more tintinnabulating vocals. ‘Cello Renoise’ re-fashions break-beat into a skittering pattern that skates atop wheezing cello, before seductive vocal coos flutter down onto the piece to like a balm on a stinging wound.
We say our farewells to Zenn-La through the epic ‘Silver Apple With Perfect Mark’, a prog song for the space age. With beats that sound like some kind of warp speed compression thrusters, airily pushing the song into levitation, and a surging undercurrent of synth as the motor, we’re soon reaching the edge of the atmosphere. Out here we have Kathryn Williams reimagining her flute parts as sparkling synth, which gracefully lures the song into deep space with pearlescent beauty.
Oliver Coates has created something truly unique and wonderful in Shelley’s On Zenn-La, and it shows that he is one of the most multi-dimensional producers currently working. The album takes a few central tenets of dance music of the last couple of decades, and sends it fearlessly spiralling into a shimmering vision of the future. It is possibly something that will bemuse some, but absolutely enthral those willing to use it to spur the imagination – and that is often the sign of a truly provocative and thoughtful artwork.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 10th September 2018.