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Oliver Coates - Shelley’s on Zenn-La Music Album Reviews

Radiohead’s favorite cellist steps out of their shadow on an album composed largely of beat-oriented electronic music influenced by—but not excessively reverent toward—the work of Aphex Twin.

A cello makes a pretty good hiding place. It’s got a wide body and a dusky tone that doesn’t stick out when paired with other instruments. And until now, that’s kind of what British cellist Oliver Coates has been doing: hiding in plain sight, obscured by the shadows of more famous names. He played on Jonny Greenwood’s scores for The Master and Phantom Thread, and made crucial contributions to Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. (“That’s it—that is the sound of the record,” Coates has recalled Thom Yorke saying after hearing him lay down parts for the album.) He also contributed to the strings scraping ghoulishly across Mica Levi’s Under the Skin score.

Coates’ growing catalog of solo and collaborative work includes a CD-R with Leo Abrahams from 2012. His solo debut, 2013’s Towards the Blessed Islands, gathered covers of Iannis Xenakis, Squarepusher, and Roy Harper—a surprising list, reimagined in often surprising ways. His best-known album is probably his and Levi’s Remain Calm, from 2016—a questing study for cello and electronics that went to the heart of his interests in sound and structure. But an easily overlooked 12" from 2014 captured his style in a very different way. On “Another Fantasy,” Coates rebuilt a loopy, sample-heavy house track from producer Bryce Hackford from the ground up, using only his cello. Hackford’s original sounded like “Around the World”-era Daft Punk heard through the wrong end of a Detroit storm drain, but Coates’ strings felt raw and resinous, emitting cricket-legged shrieks and bassy rattles. It couldn’t have been simpler, but its collision of club aesthetics and classical tradition contained multitudes.

Like his 2016 album Upstepping, Shelley’s on Zenn-La focuses largely on beat-oriented electronic music, featuring an unlikely—and at times unstable—mixture of cello, synthesizers, drum machine, and effects. Much of the record was made in Renoise, a fairly unglamorous software sequencer. As it did on his “Another Fantasy” rework, the cello serves as the secret glue holding Shelley’s together, even when you can’t necessarily recognize it. In some places, it takes the form of a buzzing drone; elsewhere, it’s a pizzicato funk line or a keening synth pad or even a scratchy hi-hat noise. Very rarely does Coates’ instrument sound like itself.

“Cello Renoise” is one exception: The bowed figures, bold fifths and fourths, saw steadily against stumbling, rickety drum-machine programming—an unusual configuration that sounds a little like something Arthur Russell might have done had he lived to see the heyday of IDM.

If any influence looms large over Shelley’s, however, it’s that of Aphex Twin. His style of drum programming is all over Coates’ album, in which scratchy, lo-fi machine sounds thud and twitch and tangle themselves up in knots, seemingly loath to follow a straight line for more than a beat or two. You can also catch echoes of Aphex Twin in the album’s slippery approach to pitch; temperamental synths slide in and out of tune, sounding drunken and giddy.

But unlike a lot of music made in Aphex Twin’s wake, Shelley’s never sounds overly reverent. On the contrary, it is playful and exploratory—the rare example of “experimental” music where pleasure seems to be at least as crucial as process. The interplay between contrasting textures—scrappy drum samples, brass-synth squelch, ethereal wordless vocals—is a source of constant fascination. Track lengths range from 95 seconds to nearly nine minutes, and in every case, the duration feels natural, a factor of Coates discovering exactly what he wants to say and then moving on. “Lime” is a sparkling miniature for sour-tuned chords (apparently cello, although it’s treated to resemble an analog synth) and crusty TR-707 that could pass for a very lo-fi cassette dub of an early Boards of Canada demo. Both “Charlev” and “Perfect Apple With Silver Mark,” on the other hand, wend their way across shifting landscapes of shuddering drums and sneakily melodic synth/cello progressions, with expositions, breakdowns, codas, and climaxes rolling endlessly by like the views from the window of an alpine train.

Unlike a lot of beat-based music, the focus here isn’t primarily on the precision of Coates’ patterns; Shelley’s is more about the way they scatter and change shape, like clouds drifting overhead. In the entrancing “Norrin Radd Dreaming” (featuring a musician named Malibu, who had a song on last year’s outstanding Mono No Aware compilation), that means synths and voices that come in waves, sloshing to and fro, building to an ecstatic peak that you never quite see coming. However Coates made this stuff—he’s described employing effects chains he designed for live performance, in which his cello is run through a dizzying array of “delays, phasers, bit crushers, pitch shifters, reverbs”—it seems clear that happy accident played an important role. There’s a kind of alchemy at work here, and you can sense Coates’ delight when what comes out of the black box doesn’t sound anything like the signal that he fed into it.

That said, the album’s most affecting song, “Prairie”—almost unspeakably beautiful, the kind of thing you might request to have played at your funeral or on your deathbed—strips away everything but delay and reverb, marking a return to the cello-ness of the cello. If the rest of the album is about seeing how thoroughly Coates’ instrument can be transmogrified into other sounds, this one is about finding comfort in its wood and metal, its graceful lines, its embrace of the room’s acoustics. You can hide behind a cello, and you can hide the cello inside other sounds. But here, Coates finds a way of being present that no other instrument can imitate.

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