Album number five from Kel McKeown brings the sonic wallpaper to life
To say that ‘The Curved Line’, Kel McKeown’s fifth album as Kelpe, was forgettable would be a gross understatement. It’s a subtle, nuanced collection of songs, but one that also seems inoffensive, wallpaper-esque, perfectly ambient. If you let it, this record can exist quite happily off in the background, bothering no one, minding its own business. In essence, it is a soundtrack to a trendy bar where people just go to talk loudly, drink obscenely overpriced cocktails, and generally pay no heed to whatever music might be playing beneath a myriad of amorphous, quickly forgotten conversations.
But give it your undivided attention and ‘The Curved Line’ reveals itself to have hidden depths, tiny networks and pathways that lead off into unexpected places. Take ‘Chirpsichord’, whose structure owes a clear debt to a particularly mellow strain of house, but whose execution feels like it’s constantly on the verge of breaking into something altogether less rigid. That the track ultimately collapses in on itself is no surprise, and the fat, ominous bass tone that lurches into view around the midpoint feels about as conspicuous as snowfall in summer.
One of the many subtleties of ‘The Curved Line’ lies in the choice of drum and percussion sounds. Here is an artist who clearly invests time and effort in the rhythm, rather than adopting ready-made 4/4 loops. At times, the beats have the same vintage quality as anything Richard H Kirk did back in his Warp days, when the Cabs stalwart dusted down primitive rhythm generators and old drum machines to add a certain warmth to his tracks. In McKeown’s case, the human quality to rhythms on other tracks, like the standout ‘Sick Lickle Thing’, comes in the form of Chris Walmsley, a drummer who appears on stage when Kelpe plays live.
A highlight here is the too-brief ‘Morning Two’, wherein McKeown eschews any sense of housey order in favour of a jazzy swing, complete with Fender Rhodes-style sprinkles. It’s slick and disciplined, but still much looser than anything else here, with the exception of the chunky, layered ‘Canjealous’ (whose initial rhythms from Walmsley seem to owe a debt to Can’s Jaki Liebezeit). These tracks slot in easily next to the more obviously hypnotic thud of ‘Drums For Special Effects’.
Another persuasive quality on ‘The Curved Line’ comes in the form of melody. Classic Warp ‘Artificial Intelligence’-era gestures crop up on tracks like the opener, ‘Doubles Of Everything’, sharing the same icy chill and captivating starkness as anything from that formative period.
The biggest success of ‘The Curved Line’ – if you can hear it above the din and clamour in your chosen hip drinking establishment – is the authenticity that McKeown brings to proceedings. Electronic musicians have been trying to inject a sense of dexterity and virtuosity to synth music almost as long as the form has existed, and Kelpe’s attempts to do just that with this album shouldn’t be overlooked.