Emancipator – Seven Seas (Loci Records, 2015)


Doug Appling’s Emancipator project has been going since 2006 now and has garnered him a decent amount of popularity; hovering tantalisingly in a genre-blending grey zone between Trip Hop and Downtempo, with some slightly more recent divergence into Nu-Jazz territory, his laid back constructions have a broad appeal thanks to their timeless sound and curiously rich simplicity. While I have before criticised his work of being a little safe and plain lately, Seven Seas really took me aback in its fantastic diversity of sound and engaging performance that lightly clings to his old Americana roots whilst flying forward into multi-cultural, multi-textural brilliance.

Opener “All In Here” may genuinely be one of the best album openers of this year, this sumptuous and multi-faceted introduction to Emancipator for new listeners and fans alike, hovering darkly and mysteriously in its crooning synth lines and tinkling pianos, wrapped in shuffling percussion and warped guitars. It really is brilliant and there’s nothing else quite like it anywhere else here sadly. It’s a lonely electronic bridging piece that everything falls in line behind and I respect that. The titular track follows it, with rather forward vocals from Madelyn Grant; it’s one of two sung pieces here and I’m somewhat underwhelmed by both of them honestly. There’s a nice marriage here between the janky and rolling rhythms and the cool cruise of Madelyn’s voice and it does feel quite cinematic but I just find it more jarringly, obviously repetitive than the music alone, the same is true of “Land & Sea” with Molly Parti although it’s far less dynamic and sounds a lot like it’s been designed for a restaurant or elevator in its meaningless lyrics and safe downtempo ditherings.

Tracks like “Ocelot” really sound like distinctive Emancipator, its staccato movements now infused with a more Asian leaning feeling as xylophones drip out of the steel strings and cooing, fluted synths, padding and prowling along like its namesake. Precursory “1993” and a little later on “Canopy” also feels like we’re harking back to earlier albums in discrete slices; the former uses his idiosyncratic violins to fantastic effect and the supplementary flute solos give this a keen and energetic edge through a merry and lengthy journey, whilst the latter dispenses with the mournful strings to give something of an Indian vibe in its choral chantings and organically driven drum rollovers. It’s incredible how easily manipulable his sound his; even though he draws up the same things he always has, with just a few tweaks in the instrumentation we suddenly find ourselves geographically lost, dreaming of American forests one moment and mysterious Asian hideaways the next.

But it’s never enough, sufficient diversity of sound has not yet been reached even in the later pieces here; “The Key” for example is this thrillingly cinematic expanse of deep Trip Hop exploration that highlights Appling at the height of his power, with Dubstep-esque twisted and pitch-shifted vocals sliding out of the truly vast violin drones and pacey synth beats, it’s like a dramatic and cathartic chase scene from a Hollywood film condensed into 5 1/2 minutes. It’s the last big moment in the album though as we do start to come down from here on out, with the Reggae grooves of sensual “Oasis” providing some cool solace. Even still, hints of sitars, banjos and even the saxophone still ring out in this refreshingly hybridised slow jam, which is somehow topped by the even more languid “Honey” and its deep Jazz roots. It’s smokey and fluidic, all smeared chords and distant sax, like we’re unwinding in the most hip and casual dive in town.

It’s pretty baffling to me how so many unique moments can be stuffed into an album just an hour long, how much musical diversity can be unloaded through such easygoing and ear-friendly pieces as these. At the hands of so many other artists this tapestry of diversity would just be a chaotic mulch of texture and place but Emancipator is no spring chicken at this point, and everything here seems so self-assured and brilliantly realised it’s pretty hard to fault. I love the feel of travel and genetic distinctiveness that everything here possesses but we’re strongly reminded of our interconnectedness, that despite distance and degrees of separation culturally or societally or musically, we all have so much in common. Easily my favourite record of his and most definitely worth your time.