On his debut album, the UK producer attempts to shake the shackles of “lo-fi house” in search of a more nuanced understanding of dance-music nostalgia, but he can’t quite escape the shadow of his influences.
Early in Chris Marker’s freewheeling 1983 film Sans Soleil, an unseen narrator muses: “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” In that light, lo-fi house’s curious way rewriting memories of dance music makes more sense. As nostalgia for electro, breakbeat, and 1990s house continues to infiltrate modern dance music, there’s something quaint about the hazy productions of artists like DJ Seinfeld, DJ Boring, and Ross From Friends. Just as their wince-worthy handles and titles evoke ’90s pop culture, their fuzzy, fussy sound laments the loss of VHS tapes and cassettes. As Ross From Friends (aka Felix Clary Weatherall) put it in one interview: “I do it because I’ve gained a real love for the old-school sound, where it really just sounds worn-out and knackered, and it’s got a lot of character. Everything’s very crushed and compressed.”
Yearning for eras beyond their reach is the bane of most dance fans’ existence, whether they missed out on the Paradise Garage, the Second Summer of Love, or a warehouse show last weekend. But with Family Portrait, Weatherall’s Brainfeeder full-length debut, he also pines for something else from the past: his own parents’ courtship and relationship to dance music. His father built his own soundsystem in the late 1980s, staging hi-NRG dance parties at various squats around London before embarking on a European trip with a friend of a friend who would one day become Weatherall’s mother. For Weatherall, then, mining rave history isn’t academic, it’s personal. Still, as he has matured in his productions, Weatherall has created ever more highly textured tracks, moving beyond that “old-school sound” for something denser and more contemporary. But with all of Ross’ attention to detail on Family Portrait, sometimes the tracks don’t fully cohere or else their sentiment feels half-baked.
Playing contrasting textures off each other makes for some strong highlights. “Project Cybersyn” twines digital chirrups and underwater gurgles; the drums sound like thumping on wet cardboard, and the track feels both sleek and soggy all at once. And that’s before Weatherall deftly slots some ’80s saxophone into the mix. At a time when woeful thinkpieces posit the saxophone as a corny novelty, Weatherall thankfully doesn’t deploy it with a wink; instead, he makes the most of its piercing timbre. “Parallel Sequence” also pulls from curiously textured sounds—a dinky distorted melody, a beat that sounds like it’s sculpted out of ice crystals—to create a poppy confection as the end result.
Too often, though, Weatherall’s intricately layered details just don’t add up, leaving elements stacked up for the sake of it. There are high-pitched squeals, quadruple-time toms, and misty synth washes all in play on “Pale Blue Dot,” but rather than blending, they ultimately cancel one another out. The tropical lilt of “The Knife” shows off Weatherall’s knack for crafting catchy earworms, but his heavy-handed way with the filter scatters the drama rather than heightening it.
In looking back on electronic music’s history, Ross From Friends emulates some of its finest practitioners, albeit imperfectly. The slow, shaken bells on the title track bring to mind Four Tet’s Rounds, but without the same sort of wistfulness. And while Weatherall conjures the eerie, childlike chimes and subliminal whispers of Boards of Canada on “R.A.T.S.,” he can’t quite pull off their sense of the uncanny. Worse still, “Wear Me Down” attempts to do Burial as a paint-by-numbers exercise: There’s a spectral vocal sample ribboning through the track, muffled and distorted programming, beats that accelerate and then dissipate, heaps of negative space haunting it all. But despite such surface qualities, Weatherall doesn’t come close to his inspiration’s heart-quickening depths. It’s moments like these that lead you to wonder just what Ross From Friends’ core sound actually is. Family Portrait dreams big, yet doesn’t dig beneath the surface of these memories. Too often, we’re left with the lining.
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