Max Cooper – Human [FIELDS]
Max Cooper is a name that is becoming increasingly familiar in today’s musical landscape. The prolific artist has built great success upon numerous remixes (most notably of Nils Frahm) and original compositions, and has garnered a reputation for his unique sound and emotively sincere musical content. Max Cooper is one of those artists that balances nicely between contemporary electro-acoustic music and electronic dance music (electronica is one of those frustratingly comfortable blanket terms to describe his music)- you’ll see him engaging in break-through projects such as creating a three-dimensional sonic experience (via 4DSOUND) on one weekend, and tearing it up on a stage at festivals such as Decibel and Awakenings on another. Here it would be rather apt to include Cooper in a caliber of artist shared by that of Bonobo, Fourtet, and Jon Hopkins (whom he sites as one of his influences, and quite understandably so). This versatility comes through clearly in the music – danceable rhythms are married with emphatic textures, and much of the music works just as well in a DJ set as it does just jamming in your bedroom or journeying through the British Museum. It is almost certain that eclectic tastes in contemporary Classical music, Jazz and beyond have influenced Cooper’s musical output and has added an extra dimension to his work.
Max Cooper’s style was already long pre-existent within, simply gathering enough strength to eventually force an outward expression; indeed it was in 2010 that he managed to transfer from his post-doctoral position as a geneticist to a full-time musical career. His willingness to experiment with interesting sounds and timbres is evident even in his first ever release Tamperine, a progressive electro-house number from 2007. Not many artists manage to start out with such a clearly defined aesthetic, but it seems for Cooper that this musical adventure was simply inevitable, laying dormant in his mind for quite some time. The debut album is an important milestone for every artist and one that Cooper hasn’t taken lightly. Three years in the making, the Human LP is a brave step forward, having wrestled with a busy touring schedule and a number of other projects in order to clock up studio time. The album comes seven years after the release of Tamperine and presents a collection of eleven emotionally charged tracks, encompassed within the simple yet mildly provocative title Human. For reasons that will become apparent upon engaging with the music, the album has the power to magnify outwards on an epic scale and Cooper has managed to create a communication that is both cohesive and transparent.
The album is signed to the relatively low-key electronica label FIELDS and follows the previously critically acclaimed EP Fragments Of Self, a truly gorgeous dialogue of minimal piano riffs, crisp drum loops and quietly yearning lyricism – well worth checking out. Human is Cooper’s latest offering for the London-based imprint which dropped on 10th March and is proving to further establish his mass cross-over appeal.
Human begins with Woven Ancestry. Dreamy soundscapes of pedestrian activity, young children and indecipherable conversation echo through the mezzanine – shortly to be underscored by various mandolins and harps that build with support from a timidly conservative string section.The cacophony swiftly climaxes to make way for a purely instrumental episode of thinly woven textures that quickly morph into a beautifully poignant statement of pain and humility. The incrementally rising bass-line figure gives the piece an accumulating strength as the sun climbs ever higher into the deep, limitless azure. A suitable prelude that succeeds in setting the stage for an epic journey. Indeed, there is no question about the subject matter here, as fragments of children seep through the texture once more; the atmosphere is beautiful and delicate, but also powerful in a very pure sort of way. (You can hear Woven Ancestry in Cooper’s inquisitive Synesthetes mix here)
The melancholic opening of Adrift helps to carry forward the fragile humility of the opening track, insofar as it is manifested in more human qualities – namely a solo singer. Kathrin deBoer‘s voice is soothing to the ear, her sorrow animated through the pained solitary lament. It is a perfect juxtaposition to the sharp hits and glitches found in the underlying texture. We are searching for guidance, for answers, as the repeated lyrics “Will someone help me out of here?” reaffirm our aimless drifting. The track is given body by the simple but powerfully effective two-part harmony, with its stripped-back arrangement giving the opportunity for space. ‘Adrift’, as the name suggests, emphasises the probing, desperate vocals; enough conviction yet lacking in strength to go through this alone. The track clocks in at just over seven minutes (easily the longest on the whole album) and only further accentuates the endless wandering that our protagonist is subjected to.
Moving swiftly on, the third track Automaton features another singer, BRAIDS, whose sweet utterings are littered throughout the track, having been sliced up and then re-embedded into the mix. The addition of vocals ground us; regular, unobtrusive textures bring us to Maribou State-Bonobo territory with stylishly cut up vocals and nod-able grooves. There is a fine art to creating such complex and disjointed textures that work so cohesively together, while allowing particular melody and percussion lines to break through. Vocals ‘Back again’ fight through the texture to instate our awakening, our return. You can hear an older version of Automaton to the left, in both you can still hear Cooper’s effectively reductionist way of layering and structuring his music.
The deliberate crackle that introduces the fourth track, Supine, acts as a transmission for us. As the signal stutters into working order, we are treated to signature Max Cooper, who is quick to supply his uniquely novel grooves for this track. The track rises optimistically though is nicely underplayed so as to retain its laid-back feel; sporadic percussion add a depth to the music, while the texture is filled out with cracks, spills and whistles – all instantly identifiable hallmarks of Cooper’s writing. Like a Summer sunrise, strings pierce the pale sky with increasing intensity, connections with nature are reinforced with bird song. Once again, fragments of human activity seep into the texture, bonding nature and man in an unescapable unity – an archaic, though deeply, intrinsically, personal coalition that we seem to have forgotten in today’s world. One where the vices of the human condition have got the better of us, to the point of total, utter consummation.
Supine drifts seamlessly into the next track, entitled Seething. Connected through the thread of carefree human activity, Seething edges us into darker waters with its smouldering synth progression and wounded ambience. The track is held together by the classic glitch that has come to characterise Cooper’s music; like a pocket-watch, it ticks with the ever pressing presence of passing time, while the track amasses in self-assured strides of growing energy. Powerful chord progressions and sub-frequencies elevate us to heightened dimensions, bringing us somehow closer to the universe. As Cooper intended, there is a raging energy that streams out of this number, beginning with emphatic crash cymbals and reeling distortions. The texture intensifies ever greater as cascading drums pile in as wandering sirens call out over the mountaintops, lamenting across the stark emptiness. We can feel the seams bursting as the it pushes relentlessly through the cracks. There is a strong sense of isolation here and this is fully realised as the track effortlessly subsides into resignation. The singular route it takes denies the opportunity for catharsis, for any resolve.
deBoer returns in the next track with Numb. As if still rigid from the subsiding tension of the previous track, a jolting drum loop sets the scene, deBoer’s voice easing in with effortless poise. A yawning bass-line is quick to enter, underpinning the track with a brooding contemplation. Whether intentionally or not the track harks back unmistakably to that ‘future-dubstep’ sound that had briefly shaken the underground but five years ago.
Impetus is carried forward with Impacts. The fairly obvious title gives way to a punchy syncopated kick drum and mechanical hat sequences. Cracks become more visible here as this numbing repetition lays siege on our dated pre-existing concepts. The track marches through with rhythmic precision and industrial vehemence. A dichotomy to the fragile, pure stems of the opening track, Impacts is effective in its senseless existence, unaware of the destruction and decay that surrounds it. A homage to the industrial grip of conglomerate authority, we are beaten relentlessly until the chaos stops abruptly. The track also received remix treatment from none other than techno luminary Perc. You can listen to his abstract take on Impacts below along with a second acid-tinged remix done by Factory Floor‘s Gabe Gurnsey:
Empyrean switches the mood as we enter a new chapter, with its sentimental cello lines and sombre piano colourings. We cannot ignore the sense of regret that seems to linger in this track. Glitches wind and reel in the background, broken shards crashing like the first drops of a storm. Apparitions lifts us into loftier climes with elysian drones slowly pulsating with an age-old wisdom, shortly before they disappear into the distance. There is something very comforting about these airy drones as they guide us through the glowing celestial passageways. As the introduction ends the glitches return, bleeping away in the empty space, somewhat lost and disoriented in the absence of higher voices. It is not long until a single piano melody etches reservedly into the sparse texture. These melodic ruminations elicit a quietly majestic return of the drones, their swaying intervals alike to the steady breathing of a giant, mythical creature. There seems to be a growing moment of clarity here as answers begin to formulate, yet what is real and what is fantasy seem to merge as we leave the natural laws that bound us to earth. This is a revelation, one of universal proportions. A spiritual exodus.
Potency follows on nicely – familiar 808s come to provide some stability on top of pedalled drones underneath. There is an air of expectancy, yet some angst that still lingers. Gritty distortion suddenly crashes into the previously peaceful texture with authoritative command, eclipsing the apprehensive 808 hook in a bed of hissing saturation. The distortion intensifies as it begins to take a form of its own, using melody as a vessel to recalibrate our vision. Strangely and almost imperceptibly, the mood shifts from the initial disruption and sheer disregard to a powerful beacon that we’re compelled to follow. The chord progression seeks to guide us into the next chapter as the physical world before us
collapses under the searing sonic haze.
Awakening feels very much like a rebirth, a coming to. Yet this is not something that has been generated as a new concept, what has awakened is something that has already existed; it was there before, we simply could not see it. The track opens with distant church bells, while chimes add light to our surroundings and clarity and focus return. As we can expect, amazing sound programming features here, creating a highly sensual auditory experience. There is no doubt that working with the 4D audio system over the last year has influenced Cooper’s perception and handling of sound and the possibilities with which we can listen and experience it. The album is nicely rounded off with the return of human voices filtering through; it feels as if life has restarted its cyclical process once again. Optimism shines through cathartically and forgivingly with tranquil affirmation, while quiet indecipherable mutterings and the subtle hint of a laugh conclude our journey.
The album is both refined and coherent. Having spent the last few years scrutinising material with monomaniacal commitment, it is clear the three-year haul was worth the effort. There is no doubt that curiosity is already piquing for what Cooper has to offer over the coming year…
[ support – Max Cooper – Human / digital release ]
[ images – Rein ]