ALBUM REVIEW: Paradise Cinema – ‘Paradise Cinema’: shimmering, vivacious, percussive, Afro ambience

JACK WYLLIE, the British multi-instrumentalist who’s exactly 25% of widescreen, recherché, sui generis soundscapers Portico Quartet and a third of more postrock aural explorers Szun Waves, is adding yet another arrow of deeply contemplative, moving, finely poised sonic artistry to his quill with his debut release as Paradise Cinema on October 9th.

And as we’ll see, it’s a daring and perfectly judged Afro-ambient set, fusing the musics of two continents – contemporary European electronica and roots instrumentation of Senegal – in such a way that charts an entirely new possible future and kicks previous New Age fusions firmly into the air, looping into the bin.

For the conception and execution of this album, Jack went to the main source, recording it in the Senegalese capital Dakar in collaboration with mbalax percussionists Khadim Mbaye and Tons Sambe – mbalax being the distinctive, intricate percussion style of Senegal and its enclaved sister country, The Gambia.

What Jack brings is a clear-sighted fusion, approaching the project looking for the spark and the edge of two musical traditions playing off each other, the tensions, the new ways forward; rather than fusing and blending to a ever so palatable, if ultimately anaemic, pan-continental stew. He wants the snap and fire of those musical tectonic plates where they grind. And by golly: does he succeed.

Take the opening track and recent single drop, “Possible Futures”. It washes in on a three-note, cloud-dappled ambience; so far, so pretty. A pursuant ‘tronica beat, underpinning, blossoms in a seductive tonal sweep of chattering drums. The ambience gains a warm layering of counterpoint; the drums respond with staggered rolls, triplets, offbeats, all manner of off-kilter suggested micro-rhythms that tug the track sideways in entirely unexpected tensions.

There’s a beauty in the way the two musical forces don’t seem to quite marry, despite acknowledging their joint purpose. Khadim and Toms’ drumming strains at the leash of arrythmia. Imagine, if you will (we said when this track was released), Richard D James’ ambient works informed by Cape Verde rather than Carn Marth.

There’s a real dream state to the sound, informed by Jack’s nights in Dakar, a hugely musical port city, alma mater of Orchestra Boabab: “I had a lot of nights in Dakar when the music around the city would go on until 6am,” Jack says.

“I could hear this from my bed at night and it all blended together, in what felt like an early version of the record.”

“It Will Be Summer Soon” arrives in your brain as the lambency of bright light caught in time lapse. High-toned drumming pans back and forth, back and forth, as a gentle lowering into the song; and then, the attack of a deep African rhythmic intensity. You’ll find yourself thrilled by the onward rush and weave; it’s so vivacious. Electronica melodies daub in the background haze, within which you roll like a pebble in a West Coast breaker. African wind instruments curl and weave in and out at speed, demanding immersion. The nearest comparison I can reach for of the same hot, fluvial blurring inventiveness would have to be Archie Shepp’s Live At The Pan-African Festival album from 1971.

“Casamance” chills things down, and is a dreamscape of deeper, thrumming offbeats, topped off with an impressionistic melodic figure couched in the warmth of reverb. Ambient sustain paints distant, receding hills; a voice seeps through as if overheard across town or on an imperfectly tuned radio. In terms of the fusion of the two musics, it’s the straightest African tune yet; and a hugely evocative moment. We’ve embedded it on a SoundCloud player below, so you can sample the lushness at work.

That ambience really shines through on “Utopia”, with saxophone looped and reconfigured into a mantric caress; real golden-hour tackle, dusk or dawn, take your pick, it carries a sense of a world in pause, moving between states. It gives way to the regal spice of “Liberté” – I’m getting something of the multitextures of The Black Dog, the forerunner to Plaid, in the noonday-sun, ambient percussive brilliance. Apparently it references a derelict modernist cinema in the Senegalese capital; a time of French colonial optimism; a very different time. The name, of course, part-references the French national motto: Libertéégalitéfraternité.

“The Digital Palm” is a track of woozy, hallucinatory excellence. The drums and brass are given full leash to swirl around you in shadowy echo, swoops of delicate ‘tronica adding little textural highlights. It fully enters into dub, so deep is the treatment on the brass. It’s a portal to a fully realised other tradition, perhaps realised properly here for the first time. It’s also the centrepiece of the album artwork, as Jack explains: “[It’s] a telecommunications mast disguised as a palm tree in central Dakar.

“As a modern piece of technology that on first glance looks natural, it mirrors the album’s combination of modern and acoustic elements.” 

The title track, “Paradise Cinema”, stays deep in that between-state. It thrums with fugue-state electronic tension, bubbling, as the Senegalese drum masters skitter and expand the atmosphere. The synth work is the sort of thing you might usually find associated with a certain monochromatic, Nordic, strain of electronica; to recontextualise and repurpose it for the verdancy of West Africa is a bold and assured step. Africa brass with a real !Impulse! Records feel – think Pharoah Sanders – picks out a melody full of emotion on the edge of the pocket.

“Eternal Spring” – now there is a concept to yearn for – wraps an audacious brilliant eight tracks. Snatched studio chatter and an affirmative OK – the most recognised word the world over, etymology fans – preludes a proper drum battle between Khadim and Toms as warm electronic sustain floods your veins and the middle ground like sugar. It’s the high drone matra and techno evocation of Monolake’s “Gobi – The Desert” given a whole new rhythmic twist. It has sparkle and intrigue and the kinda depth you can submerse in. It swirls and pans to a conclusion on the electronica side of the spread, bathed in cyclical shimmer.

As a concept, as an album, it’s beautifully realised. Think ‘world’-tronica fusion, think Deep Forest; forget it. Absolutely do. This album has incredible variance and vibrancy, each track a subtly different entwining and tension. The drumming is absolutely incredible; the electronica, by turns sympathetic, grandstanding, chattering; the whole, synaesthesic, layered, vibrant, transporting.

Jack says that Paradise Cinema is informed by the post-structuralist notion of hauntology, theorised by French philosopher Jacques Derrida; in which possible futures that were never realised can ‘haunt’ and inform the present.

On this album, such possible futures are given life and signposted. Whole new musical worlds can flow out from this spring. It’s a set of clever, haunting and very inspiring future musics in which to fully immerse oneself.

Paradise Cinema’s Paradise Cinema will be released by Gondwana Records on October 9th, on digital, CD and limited transparent green vinyl formats. You can pre-order a copy at Paradise Cinema’s Bandcamp page; and from Piccadilly Records, Rough Trade and Resident.

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