When people discuss how music is made, or its cultural significance, or what value it holds, it’s often fascinating, but it sidesteps the point that music is fundamentally about how it makes you feel. Part of a reviewer’s remit is to compare to what has gone before, and to utilise their own tastes and experiences to help interpret the subject under the microscope…
Paul Alty’s Skyline EP exists in a bubble all its own. Sometimes it’s clear where influences may have come from, and sometimes it isn’t. And that’s just fine, because it’s your response to it that ultimately matters. How it makes you feel.
Why the pre-amble? This all-instrumental set of four songs doesn’t fit neatly into any one category, that’s why – and is all the better for it. I don’t want to box it in. But I will say this – it made me feel stuff, and it’s great that Paul Alty hasn’t forgotten that fundamental – because it feels like there’s a genuine story to be told within each piece. It’s also fair to say that there are lead vocal choices which are very Jean-Michel Jarre, and that there are little production chops that feel very Röyksopp or Underworld. And it’s also fair to say there are trance plateaus attained and maintained. Recognising these doesn’t diminish the impact of the EP though: it’s a stone-cold triumph.
We start with Skyline, which is a moody beast, all rupturing synths and yet meditative from the outset. Blade Runner vibes abound and images of dystopian futures with monolithic structures jump unbidden to my mind. And we’re flying drone-smooth between shining towers of sound, modulated for colour and detail. Paul Alty’s palette is immaculate throughout, with each sound carving its space. It’s all sounding mechanical until a very human tambourine loop is introduced three-quarters of the way through. Melody pokes its head into your consciousness throughout; different instruments choosing their moments to invade the forefront of the listener’s attention.
Night Flight uses a decent chunk of its 7 minute plus run-time to nod hard at the Equinoxe album by Jean-Michel Jarre. But its use of a bouncing, resonant synth in the initial build is something new, a spectral synth and a short phrase of familiar rasping bass synth do the job of cueing up the full-on beat – then it’s anticipation all the way until a massive white noise sweep introduces the voicings and delay-exploiting phrasing that Jarre favoured. Then some high-pitched Vangelis-style layers adorn the piece with further meaning.
Side-chaining bass synth marks out the pulse of Loves Found early on, and this drives through a good chunk of the piece before we hit a breakdown at the half-way mark. Bubbling, burbling synths syncopate fiercely while reverb-drenched keys that may once have been a ghostly piano mark out a minimal, sparing melody at the top of the sound. The melody continues to build as the track progresses, until the beat finally cedes, and the rhythmic synths that had accompanied it are allowed to wind down. A discordant, muddy growl lingers for a few moments until its point has been made, until it, along with its fellows, allows itself to be extinguished.
The mood stays dark and a little threatening for the closing piece, Black Skies. However, after an imposing introduction and a large slice of the spotlight, the fat bass synths pause, like the clouds parting, to allow the sun to cut through about halfway through the track. And then the growling bass fills up the landscape again with some syncopated flavours cutting through. Delay on the lead sound, panned hard to one side, then the other, creates some great rhythmic counterpoint, and some gentle pads underpin the whole with a wistful flavour. It’s a hypnotic, imposing finishing point that halts suddenly, shockingly. Which is not a criticism, it’s well-judged.
Skyline is a wide-reaching EP with some glorious high points and a journey that moves sonically all over the shop. Each piece feels like it has a narrative to exploit, and each does this with great elan. Fine, refined work. I’m feeling it.