Album review: Llyr – ‘Biome’: a deeply textural exploration of ecological IDM for Mesh – and frontrunner for electronica album of the year

The Breakdown

<What to say about Llyr's debut album that doesn't merely resort to admiring expletives? Crikey, it's intelligent. I can't begin to conceive of how may hours it took to reify such a fascinating proposition and make it not just absolutely immersive, but also danceable. It's a future music, ibrings that wide-eyed wow of hearing something fresh. Also, and most importantly, it envelops, it enthralls, it exhilarates, it downright bangs. Best electronic album of the year? Pretty much bet your house on it. Best electronic album of many a year? Nailed on. Best electronic album of any year? You know what? I can see no way that Biome won't take its place alongside Amber, Music Has The Right to Children, Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1 et al. That bloody good. Essential. Bloody essential.
MESH 9.6

YOU KNOW that if no less a renaissance man than Max Cooper is taking enough of an interest in what you’re sculpting in sound to sign you up for his label, Mesh, then you must be doing something not only very right, but also very interesting; Max really these days being at the forefront of putting the I in IDM, with his multimedia collaborations with the McGloughlin brothers, in the world of dance, and beyond.

You can also bet your bottom dollar that we, lovers of the music, need to prick up our ears, pay some rapt attention, too.

Such is the case with Gareth Williams, the sound investigator who as Llyr about to release his debut album, Biome, for Mesh, with a set of deeply audiophile sound explorations as part of the 3D Reworks series already under his belt – or, as is the preferred and wholly apt term, ‘sonic ecosystems’. These he composes using field recordings, according them all the respect and attention they deserve – and also firmly planting the other foot into deep acid squelch, electronic textures, fashioning those selfsame sounds into the sound design of the 21st-century human playing off and finding common cause with the sounds of the world as it exists not only alongside us – but before us. Analogue and electric music for mind and body.

You may have been lucky enough to experience Llyr’s work with 3D sound at Max Cooper’s Barbican shows back when, oh such things, in September 2019, which were right out on the advancing edges of how sound can be; on that occasion he threaded together environment recordings from the capital with answerphone messages and presented them in jaw-dropping, whirlwinding precision and aural definition.

Getting tech now, he was one of the people responsible for developing the iconic Lemur touchscreen media controller for iOS and Android, allowing real-time control of sound systems in a live setting; it was used recently to enable the first ever live jam between Earth and orbit, when astronaut Dr. Alexander Gerst, aboard the International Space Station, performed a duet with Kraftwerk in front of a live audience. Which: pretty fuckin’ far out.

With the move back to vinyl there’s been a move towards a bipartisan album experience; witness, in a very different sphere, Field Works’ Cedars: one side Arab poetry devotional, the other spoken word Americana, both sides appreciative of our threatened forests and wholly spiritual.

Biome takes a similar tack, being split into two sections, corresponding to sides: the Pre-Anthropocene and the Anthropocene. The first is composed (and composed, here, in both senses) of field recordings made by Gareth in our rainforests; you’ll hear bird song, monkeys, the nuance of wood moving against wood as trees abrade in the wind. Nope: no drum machines, synths, sample banks; the world captured as is and then subtly (and sometimes massively and transportingly) layered and reworked on a sound-sculpting level, with granulation and editing, custom instrumentation forged from short fragments lifted and fashioned into mutable devices, evolved in harmony with the sonic (and real-world) environment. Again, really profoundly far out, boggling minds, including mine.

On the second section, the Anthropocene, there’s more of an overt technological threading, with electronica foregrounding in its own right; more complicated, more chaotic.

Gareth says: “The amazing thing about nature is that there is a perfect solution for everything. Each organism is highly specialised and has exactly the right characteristics to fill a gap.

“Writing music holds a similar challenge – how do we create and arrange a collection of sounds and musical ideas so that they make sense as a whole but where each individual element also has its own proper place? In this sense, nature is the ultimate composer.”

Biome then is intended as a focus on, a love letter to, an expression of, the precarity and beauty of our ecosystem. In that, Mesh is ideally placed as a host for such a musical examination – witness Max Cooper’s own brilliant Earth EP from last summer.

There’s a wider tradition, of course, in techno and IDM to produce with field recordings twining and a deeper ecological and ethnological concern and flavours – the warm ambience of KMRU’s recent Logue, with its Kenyan field recordings adding psychogeographical weight and shimmer, James Holden and The Animal Spirits; going way back to the Nineties, the ecstasy-hippy ambient of Deep Forest; Coldcut and Hexstatic’s magnificent sampledelic single, “Timber”; the ethno-prog-psychedelic odyssey of Future Sound of London’s Lifeforms. Where does Biome stand in this lineage, if at all – for all its conceptual integrity, how is it as a transporting soundworld in its own man-machine-ecosystemic right? Time to take a dive.

Gareth Williams, aka Llyr

“Refuge Of Majesty”opens Biome in drone and field recordings so crisp, spatially precise and faithful Chris Watson would surely look on in admiration; the drone holds the centre, provides the anchorage as animal cries float across in dub. It strikes a compelling balance between presenting the world exactly as it is and teasing out the subtlest intervention; a hyperreal, or photorealist, state. Almost exactly without mimesis, but crucial interventions lending musicality. I find a line here back to the aforementioned Future Sound of London album, but far more advanced, more refined. A loping break joins the soundscape with a Mo’Wax feel.

“Chorus Of The Insects” is a show of sound presented with an opening crescendo of thrum and soar; and once more there’s dub, drone, as chirruping and leg-rubbing and microcosmic chatter interpolates; this needs the best speaker set-up you can apprehend for the purpose, as it’s a phenomenal space of sound. That drone fizzes and banks up the suspense of … of being, of life, and there’s no other way to put it.

“Winged Chamber Music” was premiered on Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on 6 Music in early May and caused a splash, quite literally, as a sphere of ecosystem-sourced retro ambient cycled and swirled over the radio, the sound sources here dripping cave water and the chitchat and sonar of bats pitched down into human range; there’s a Philip Glass formalism, a Berlin attention to texture and lusciousness, an absolute majesty to this reshaping. Monolake as a carving of the Green Man, centuries old, over-vined and sunbleached, cracked and potent. Look, there’s no other way to put this: pretty fucking mind-blowing. Exhilarating, transcendent. A cast-iron genuine thrill in sound. Actually, one of the most astonishing electronic music experiences I’ve had in years.

“Courtship Signal” uses a recording of frogs singing in Kubah National Park, Malaysia, to provide a naturally occurring palette of textures, timbres, rhythms and glitching – Pole or one of Mille Plateaux’ Clicks + Cuts compilations occurring out there in the wild as a musical pareidolia. It lulls you into the rhythm of the ranine, implores you note the musicality, before swelling and surging and bursting with a dripping high tonal patterning and glistening, the eons-old mating calls overlaid and finally smashed into new shards by Llyr’s refashioning. It doesn’t crescendo as hard as “Winged Chamber Music” for which, be thankful; how much sonic exhilaration the heart can stand was sorely tested there.

And so endeth part the first, that quartet of field recordings reinfused with the essence of themselves and teased into thrall and wonder; the second side promises a what? more conventional IDM journey, and so it begins in the spacious acid banger of “Intrusion #509”, which does everything right. This is your kinetic release, your chance to move the energies and suspense of the opening tracks out and back into the world in techno which has the perfect poise between deep acid and oxygenated spacious, texture and melody. Banger. Beautiful.

That’s followed by “The Hawthorne Effect” – named for the theory in which people are thought to modify their behaviour if conscious of observation – nominally captures a swarm of insects engaging in a mating ritual, presenting as a base collective hum from which Llyr explodes out the sound in shards and fractals, plunging us into the communal hum and individual insect textures; macro- and micro- level, of course all the while layering this into an icy techno with a clicky, addled swing from that propelling kickdrum, static fizz, wired and warped and weird and absolutely sweeping you away. Compelling; inundating.

The only overtly collaborative track arrives with “Interject”, featuring the London/Berlin duo Private Agenda. It’s stripped back and heavy with the sounds of the forest, and brimming with the kind of fractured bass groove you last heard to such potency roundabout “Windowlicker”. It’s full of space and dark electro conceits; music to pulse and spasm your body akimbo, wired to a (wind turbine-powered, natch) National Grid.

And it’s a further spacious infectiousness that concludes the album, in “Encroachment”. More understated, dreamy, built on a staccato skeleton of melody and an almost Sixties’ spy movie hook, all gathered together and stitched with clever soundplay, swooping effects; midway through it surges harder, rides a solar wind, picks up dubbier complexity. You thought you were getting a mellower ride out of here, right? Well; not quite.

What to say about Llyr’s debut album that doesn’t merely resort to admiring expletives? Crikey, it’s intelligent. All too often the concept of the artwork proves the more interesting thing; as for the finished work, sometimes you can walk away saying, oh yeah, clever dat.

Not so Biome. I can’t begin to conceive of how may hours it took to reify such a fascinating proposition and make it not just absolutely immersive, but also danceable; hours spent carving out fragments of sine waves and fashioning them themselves into little bespoke percussive and melodic devices in their own right. It would take a brain the size of the Mekon’s, or certainly bigger than yrs truly, to appreciate the academic and artistic rigour involved.

As for the test from earlier; yep, I definitely think it stands alongside label boss Max, FSOL, et al, in moving forward a particular narrative of ethno- and ecologically concerned IDM. Which is in no way to say it’s derivative, because it’s so not; it’s a future music, is brings that wide-eyed wow of hearing something fresh. Also, and most importantly, it envelops, it enthralls, it exhilarates, it downright bangs.

Best electronic album of the year? Pretty much bet your house on it. Best electronic album of many a year? Nailed on. Best electronic album of any year? You know what? I can see no way that Biome won’t take its place alongside Amber, Music Has The Right to Children, Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1, Autobahn et al. That bloody good. Essential. Bloody essential.

Llyr’s Biome will be released digitally and on vinyl by Mesh on July 29th, the vinyl being eco-recycled so that no two copies will be the same; you can pre-order yours now over at the label’s Bandcamp page.

Connect with Llyr online at his website, and at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and at Mesh

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