For those who remember Simian Mobile Disco from their best-known albums, 2007 debut ‘Attack Decay Sustain Release’ and its followup, ‘Temporary Pleasure’, ‘Murmurations’ might come as something of a surprise. But fans who’ve kept up with their experimental production in the intervening years know that this is a duo who eschew anything close to a signature sound in favour of exploring techniques outside of their, and their listeners’, comfort zones. Named after undulating formations of starlings, sixth album ‘Murmurations’ is about movement and space as much as their earlier albums were about minimalism and melody; from start to finish, it has the feel of sounds bouncing off the walls of a vast chamber.
Rather than big-name collaborators, the driving force of James Ford and Jas Shaw’s sixth album is the London-based Deep Throat Choir, an all-female singing group consisting of just voices and drums. Opening track ‘Boids’ explores the choir’s capabilities tentatively, with a swell of voices forming a soft, wordless sound that could almost be a synth in places. It sounds more suited to a late-night, post-club chillout session or even music to fall asleep to than the dark and fuzzy basement parties their earlier records soundtracked.
‘Caught In A Wave’, the album’s first single, begins in a similar way, the gated reverb of the driving beat contrasting with the openness of the voices. If SMD did develop anything approaching a signature sound, it’s the sparseness of their soundtracks, created mostly on analogue synths and relying more on the spaces between sounds than the pile-on of effects favoured by more mainstream EDM to create atmosphere. It’s the same deal here, with the beat sounding at times like a set of pots and pans being artfully played.
The duo’s penchant for analogue sounds mixed with the choir’s purposefully discordant harmonies gives an avant-garde feel in places, as on the build-up of ‘We Go’ and the atmospheric instrumental ‘Gliders’, which warms slowly like the theme song to a sunrise. ‘Hey Sister’ is mesmeric and almost chant-like, while the vocals rise and fall like crashing waves on ‘A Perfect Swarm’.
Evoking nature through sound is no accident – the very title of the album is a natural phenomenon, and the fact that the mental images conjured on first listen are ones of open, unspoilt landscapes shows they’ve pulled it off impressively. There’s not much variation between the melodies of ‘Defender’ and ‘V Formation’ – and the closing title track feels like a bit of an anticlimax – but the album’s nine tracks are mostly enveloping soundscapes. There’s a distinct journey through ‘Murmurations’, and you might get lost – in a good way – in the middle.