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Djrum - Portrait With Firewood Music Album Reviews

Taking inspiration from the performance artist Marina Abramović, the UK bass musician’s second album uses chamber instruments and spoken-word fragments to get at the messy business of human intimacy.

Whether you were one of the 1,400 people to participate in a soul-searching staring contest with Marina Abramović or you simply watched others sit before her during the 700-plus hours of her 2010 performance piece The Artist Is Present, it was one of the most intense and emotional experiences to be had in the atrium of the MoMA. And while watching JAY-Z rap “Picasso Baby” at Abramović was a teeth-gnashing train wreck of music and performance art, producer Felix Manuel is unabashed about admitting Abramović’s influence on his recent productions. As Djrum, Manuel has been at the cutting edge of UK bass for the past eight years, plowing through the barriers between dubstep, downtempo, techno, and drum’n’bass. When he set about working to follow up his debut album from five years ago, Manuel continually returned to video clips of Abramović, moved to tears by what he called her “incredibly deep understanding of the human condition.” The title of Portrait With Firewood, in fact, is a reference to one of Abramović’s own pieces.

Just how Abramović informed Djrum’s gorgeous, questing new work isn’t apparent on the surface. For the first third of the album, one might just assume the art-world influence means no foundation-quaking bass or steady beat, as Manuel instead foregrounds his own piano playing, arrangements, and collaborations with cellist Zosia Jagodzinska and vocalist Lola Empire. While classically trained on the instrument, Manuel says he was reluctant to let fans of his dance productions hear him on piano, a fear that seems unfounded considering the ruminative runs that open the album and set a contemplative mood throughout. “Unblocked” and “Waters Rising” elicit comparisons to Keith Jarrett and Alice Coltrane, but thankfully, Manuel soon pushes beyond those influences. In “Waters Rising,” rippling overtones mix with nervous wood clops as Empire’s voice surfaces and then sinks back down into the mix.

A duet between Manuel’s piano and Jagodzinska’s quivering cello on “Creature Pt.1” is so evocative that it could be mistaken for an Erased Tapes release. But as dubstep bass detonates across the second part of the track, it shatters the crystalline patterns of the first half, leaving instead jagged shards. The shrieking cello, clipped vocal samples, and knee-capping bass turn the contemplative first half into something menacing and quaking. Only at the end of the track’s second part does Djrum allow in a bit of light, although the vocal sample—“It’s not my mind, it’s not my body, it’s just my heart”—lands with more weight than just about any sound that came before it.

It’s on the latter half of the album that the emotional resonance of Portrait With Firewood is laid bare. A track called “Sex” is dark, turbulent, and knotty, as if the title wasn’t referring to the physical act so much as all the conflicting emotions that boil up around it. Yes, there are samples of heavy breathing—even a shout for emphasis—but as the piece drills deeper, Djrum sounds less interested in the peak of orgasm than the idea of falling into the dark chasms of another person. Amid the tricky rhythms and emotionally poignant strings of “Blue Violet,” Manuel drops in a plaintive female voice saying, “I never felt anything like this before, something I didn’t count on.” That sense of nakedness and exchange returns again at the album’s quietest moment, “Sparrows,” in which dreamy chimes and brushed cymbals twine together like lovers’ fingers. If only it weren’t reduced to the pat rhyme scheme: “I’ll show you my scars/You’ll show me the stars.”

Djrum’s attempt to bridge the gap between acoustic instrumentation and programming doesn’t always work, just as some of Portrait’s spoken word-bits come off as hokey rather than profound. The album’s most ambitious track doubles as its messiest: The nine-minute whirlwind “Showreel Pt.3” toggles between woozy ambience and furious breakbeat techno, with throttling kicks reminiscent of gabber. Atop it all, another disembodied voice laments, “I feel so divorced from the world.” When Manuel pulls it all together, the results are audacious as anything in electronic music right now, restless and in search of emotional connection—a rare instance of a producer holed up in his studio seeking to be present.

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