Cactus alert!! This is almost certainly the best electronic music album ever recorded in the middle of a desert
The angular, ambient and off-kilter electronica of ‘Whorl’ sees Simian Mobile Disco continue to distance themselves from the upbeat analogue house of their earlier work. The result may perplex some, but will most certainly delight much of their fan base and beyond.
Keen not to creatively procrastinate, SMD’s James Ford and Jas Shaw challenged themselves by relocating their modular operations to the iconic Joshua Tree National Park in California, where they quickly developed the material for this album, played it live to 900 enthralled punters in a club within the vicinity, and refined it back at their London studio. The music itself reflects the extremes of the environment it was recorded in, and is a hugely ambitious and varied collection of textures, layers and atmospheres.
‘Whorl’ kicks off with two relatively incongruous collages of sound, ‘Redshift’ and ‘Dandelion Spheres’. The former has lots of ambient skitters and the latter lashings of eerie sci-fi synths that wouldn’t be out of place in an early John Carpenter movie. These cinematic mood pieces are followed by ‘Sundogs’, a track structured around a slow burning groove which gradually accelerates, transforms briefly into a sun-drenched Balearic-style foot-stomper, and then slows down again.
It’s not until four tracks in that SMD introduce the first brazenly danceable track on the album, ‘Hypnick Jerk’, which twists and turns in unexpected directions with a thoughtfulness that evokes shapes being thrown elegantly, rather than clumsily. ‘Calyx’ also has a club feel, beginning with a wave of reverberated static before settling into a pleasingly hypnotic and funky pulsating shuffle. By contrast, ‘Dervish’, is a bit of a mess and sounds as though it hasn’t developed that much beyond tentative, one-fingered noodlings. ‘Z Space’, a trebly collage of random squelches that don’t really seem to go anywhere, similarly needs more work.
By this point, the listener could not be blamed for yearning for something a little less cluttered and is rewarded with the mighty ‘Nazard’, a tour de force of electronic invention. The bleeps, squelches and rumbling bass sounds are terrific, eventually exploding into a climax of wonderfully disparate noises. Another highlight is ‘Tangents’, arguably the most accessible track here. With its strong electropop sensibility, fused with propulsive beats and a slightly sinister cackle, it provides the album’s last upbeat moments.
‘Whorl’ wraps up as it begins, with the seductive and sedating mood of ‘Casopeia’. It’s a plaintive track, but it’s too erratic and eccentric to facilitate anything approaching a relaxed or chilled-out state. It’s a great end to what is a fascinating album, one that occasionally falters, but often delights, and always captivates and engages.