Leeds-based Submotion Orchestra’s latest, Alium, is a fascinating case study on the merits of cross-pollinated electronica and the pros and cons of genre-hopping. Like other members of the “live electronica” imprint (Holy Fuck, GOAT), this seven-piece ensemble mixes synths and computers with real-world instruments to create a dancey bridge between, in this case, dub-step and soul.
What stands out most prominently on Alium‘s first listen is just how heavy the electronic side of their sound is. With bass drops, distorted synthetic thumping and huge catch-and-release beats, the digital portion of the septet can, at times, overwhelm the other elements of the record. Opener “Awakening” gets the mix just right, with a gorgeous trumpet melody coming in during its second act that plays like a vocal hook before a very post-rock buildup and spillover.
Sadly, a lot of this dynamicism is lost on future tracks. Big R&B production values alongside admittedly-beautiful vocal work provided by singer Ruby Wood are clean and smooth, with a very British quality that can’t help but be compared to their neighbours in The xx. “Time Will Wait” and “Victim Of Order” are songs built to serve the lyrical verses, and while these songs work on their own they are considerably more bland than their instrument-forward counterparts.
Alium suffers from the same fate as so many well-intentioned albums with strong intro tracks: the initial shock of hearing something decidedly different and expressive makes any kind of formula-derived songs pale in comparison. The mid-album dub jam “Chrome Units” seeks to remedy this with a big emphasis on electronic elements and more fleeting brasswork, and while it does the job of revitalizing Alium, it’s disappointing to know that these creative vents only crop up when the band isn’t tasked around a soul-based song structure.
Alium is a good collection of songs. Played as an album, its genetic diversity has a negative impact on its cohesion. Confusing as it may be to electronica purists, or soul-food junkies, it is nonetheless an entertaining and unique attack on the “live digital music” experiment.