As fond as this writer is of a bit of imagery-laden exposition at the start of a review, splashed with a little context and biography, sometimes it’s necessary to ensure that even the most casual reader will stop and engage. So, forgive me if we begin at the end and acknowledge that this is a bizarre, ambitious and outrageously good record. It nods to early Nineties and late Noughties electronic music, goes for the feet as much as the head and is almost entirely built out of cello sounds bent into varying shapes. Which you can’t say about very many albums.
Oliver Coates is a composer, producer and, perhaps most importantly, cellist, who clearly doesn’t know when to stop. There are nods to Arthur Russell, Orbital, Radiohead and Burial at points across ‘Upstepping’ but they only ever feel like small ingredients that have gone into making something truly spectacular. It takes several listens just to get to grips with what has been created here. What might sound like a hi-hat is a mutated stroke of that central instrument and the melodic layers of sound are treated samples also.
‘Bambi 2046’ builds to an almighty conclusion, a wall of reconstituted noise offering a strange release from an insistent rhythm. ‘Perfect Love’, meanwhile, is described by Coates himself as “100% made from different types of cello attack.” Putting to one side the fact that those two words have almost certainly never previously nestled together, it’s a muscular garage track that sounds like the noise from a construction site turned into music on first exposure, but which reveals its remarkable origins via repeated visits.
When ‘Memorial To Hitchens’ emerges with its cello presence barely concealed, it offers a moment of stirring recovery across three beatless minutes. ‘Stash’ has an afrobeat undercurrent with the euphoric rhythm put front and centre, while ‘Timelapse [Walrus]’ manages to be even better than its title suggests. It builds around what on any other album would be heard as a keys loop but, naturally, is actually more manipulated cello. With several breakdowns, it ebbs and flows like the finest early Nineties electronic releases, teasing the listener with its imminent explosion. This is music in tune with the human psyche, able to push buttons with dexterity and deliriously addictive as a consequence.
Having commenced this piece with a conclusion, it seems fitting to end with the potentially headline-grabbing news that Coates appears on the recently unveiled Radiohead album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, as part of the London Contemporary Orchestra. While that release may have been a comfortingly familiar return for many, ‘Upstepping’ is a far more noteworthy offering. It heralds an unconfined talent eschewing convention and focusing on the primal urge to move. Its creator describes this music as “the opposite of cerebral,” but it’s far from simple. As an arranger, he has interpreted the work of others skillfully but here Coates has made a fascinating and genuinely exciting record that is removed from everything else going on around it.
Words: Gareth James
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