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Niagara - Apologia Music Album Reviews

During the three years since their last release, the Portuguese trio have built a soundworld of peculiar synths, drum machines, and samples, all in pursuit of hard-to-define moods.

Over the past seven years, Lisbon label Príncipe has become closely aligned with the dynamic style known as batida, a homegrown hybrid of Afro-Lusophone diasporic sounds like kuduro, tarraxinha, and kizomba. A little like Chicago footwork, it has gained a global foothold despite marginalized origins, turning producers like DJ Marfox, Nídia, and DJ Nigga Fox into artists of worldwide renown. But Príncipe’s remit extends beyond batida: The label’s second release, issued the same year as DJ Marfox’s debut, came from Photonz, a techno producer with a soft spot for early-’90s trance. The Portuguese electronic trio Niagara soon stepped up with five tracks of wonky, lo-fi house music steeped in Italo disco.

Niagara put out another EP, Ímpar, in 2015—virtually the only non-batida release to appear on Príncipe in the years after the their label debut—and now they are back with their first full-length album. But something has changed in the past three years. Where the toe-scuffing Ímpar tipped its hat to Metro Area and DFA, Apologia finds them building out their own soundworld, one that has less to do with established categories than chasing hard-to-define moods.

As is the case with a lot of questing, imaginative electronic music from recent years—Jan Jelinek, Andrew Pekler, Visible Cloaks—it’s not always easy to tell if this stuff is old or new, or even its hemisphere of origin. Zigzagging synth arpeggios drizzle over rudimentary drum-machine grooves, and conga taps arrive with the slow, steady drip of a leaky faucet; out-of-phase patterns circle each other like a dog chasing its own tail. It’s rickety but beautiful, janky keyboards and intercepted radio signals shot through with stumbling thumb piano and graceful synth pads. With instrumentation heavy on hand percussion, harp-like glissandi, and other new-age trappings, a tropical vibe prevails.

Despite the relatively high humidity, Niagara don’t seem interested in standard-issue chillout. Unease lurks below the surface of their blissfully lopsided machine jams. In the opening “França,” a manic, distorted voice—like Donald Duck on a bender—cuts against placid chimes and rippling ride cymbals. On “6:30,” mismatched synth loops and a dully repetitive groove spin in wobbly circles, while pastel chords flare up in the background, cartoonish and wistful.

Niagara find a certain strength in withholding. Many tracks feel like they could kick off at any moment; throw in a heavy bass drum, and you could confuse them for nightclub barnstormers. But the trio seems to realize that to lean too hard on the drums would be to overwhelm the music’s intricate architecture of interconnected loops. Take “Momento Braga,” in which screen-door squeak, pinball ping, R2-D2 chirps, and earthy marimba weave together seamlessly and glisten in midair, like a spiderweb. An echoing voice bobs at the center of it all, something caught within the song’s sticky matrix.

The most captivating material verges upon pure ambient. That goes for the beat-less “Senhora do Cabo,” just two synth chords drifting above vaporous tones, and the pulse-heavy “Damasco,” where a lilting synth lead trips over leathery congas. It has rhythm but no real forward motion, spinning in place like a mobile. “Via Garibaldi,” a bonus cut not included on the vinyl edition, pairs the tape-delayed synths of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II with a ring-modulated voice that sounds like a garbled radio transmission snagged straight from space. (There are four such bonus tracks, and they are among the best here; choose your format wisely.) “O Astro,” another bonus, might be a field recording played back on a malfunctioning reel-to-reel deck.

Niagara’s resourcefulness suggests a castaway’s ingenuity, using unconventional techniques to unlock new territories. Cobbled together out of ethnographic recordings, distant shortwave signals, and idiosyncratic synths, Apologia sets its sights on an elusive state of transcendence. Consider it an escape vehicle to spirit listeners away from the failures of what more efficient, more expensive methods of music-making have wrought.


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