Nabihah Iqbal, “Dreamer” (Ninja Tune)
Everybody's initial pandemic months were rough, but London-based musician Nabihah Iqbal's were rougher than most. In early 2020, a burglar ransacked her studio and absconded with the follow-up album to her 2017 debut LP, Weighing of the Heart. This was in addition to her broken hand and mental burnout. Then, as police were assessing the damage, she found out that her grandfather in Karachi, Pakistan had suffered a brain hemorrhage. So she flew out to see her grandparents the next day.
Away from the crime scene, Iqbal recalibrated. She bought an acoustic guitar and a harmonium and rebuilt her sophomore full-length from the ground up. The result is Dreamer, an enchanting hybrid of electronic dance music, atmospheric shoegaze rock, heart-on-sleeve balladry, and New Order worship. Regarding the latter, “This World Couldn't See Us”—with its massive, punchy beats, Peter Hook-y bass line, pastel, melancholy keyboard motif, and Iqbal's passionately deadpan vocals—is basically mid-'80s New Order recast as a sweeping, female-empowerment anthem.
Album-opener “In Light” is a miasma of Cocteau Twins-y wonder in the key of swoon. Muted yet uplifting house music with swirling atmospheric synth, “Sunflower” makes you feel as if you're dissolving in bliss. Similarly, in the swanky house music of “Sky River,” the cobalt-blue synth arpeggios are tailor-made for scoring a climactic Hollywood film scene—just epic sweep and panoramic drama in every measure. By contrast, the Grouper-esque “Lilac Twilight” wafts in on spangly acoustic guitar and diaphanous, poignant vocal chants. This is impressive range.
Album highlight “Dreamer” charms with cyclical, crystalline guitar beauty, creamy, vaporous vocals, and understatedly robust bass and drum propulsion. You'll be lucky if you can discern the lyrics, but they don't matter as much as the sheer sonic bliss that Iqbal imparts in this ascending helix of shoegaze magic. Slowdive? More like Slowrise.
Nabihah Iqbal performs June 4 at Baroza.
Yves/Son/Ace, “Tainted Doors” (self-released)
Seattle multi-instrumentalist Matt Ford's known mainly for his drumming in some of this city's most adventurous, 21st-century rock groups: the Intelligence, Factums, Love Tan, Evening Meetings, Dreamsalon, Idol Ko Si, etc. His solo project, Yves/Son/Ace—which he kicked off in 2004—has flown even further below the radar than those obscure but excellent bands, because there's no justice in this world.
On early releases such as Parade of Thoughts/Can't Sleep and Unsung, Y/S/A's lo-fi, anti-pop songs eluded easy categorization. Often sounding as form-busting and otherworldly as the Residents, Y/S/A moved in a more overtly electronic direction with 2020's all/non/void, as if angling for a slot on a Decibel Festival stage that no longer exists. Make no mistake, though—Ford's electronic-music vision is as twisted as his rock instincts.
Now with the new 33 Steps, Y/S/A plunges even deeper into electronic-music hypnosis. For example, “Joy d'nocturne” is noisy, psychedelic techno for dank basements, its muscular beats shadowed by plastic percussion accents. A distant warped guitar part (played by “Pierre”) writhes in the distance, like a metaphor for Ford's rock past being stomped on. The title track emulates the Germanic dub techno of the legendary Chain Reaction roster. It's stark and ominous, just the way cyborgs like it. “Burnt Clock” peddles punishing Porter Ricks-via-Throbbing Gristle techno: swift, crunching, unsettling. “Casual Labor” comes off like the heaviest Suicide cut, the bass riff as doom-laden as Earth's environmental outlook.
The truly twisted techno brut of “Acid Burn” is as grim as a death sentence and as timbrally outrageous as a Xenakis composition. My favorite, “Tainted Doors,” carries the spare, threatening aura of Richie Hawtin's early output. The production's bone-dry and ghostly and the beats hit like a persistent knock on the door from the Gestapo, reminding me of driving desolate Detroit streets in 1993 to Plastikman's minimal-techno klassik, Sheet One.
Despite the high-quality work Ford's done over the last few years, he currently has no label backing, which is kind of crazy. The good news is, he's now at work on an epic follow-up album that has the benefit of Stranger Music genius Erik Blood producing, so expect spectacular sounds in a higher resolution coming in the near future.