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Ultramarine - Signals Into Space Music Album Reviews

After 30 years, the London duo sounds more refined than ever, though their mix of ethereal jazz, ambient electronics, and mechanized drums has rarely been harder to define.

Ultramarine have always seemed to exist slightly outside their time. Their 1989 debut EP, Wyndham Lewis, incorporated recordings of the work of Lewis, the futurist painter and writer who died three decades earlier. And where their first album, 1990’s Folk, bore certain hallmarks of its era—a mix of breakbeats, funk bass, and keening saxophone, embedded within groove-heavy, sampledelic post-punk—subsequent albums ventured further afield. Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper made good on the promise of what Simon Reynolds called “pastoral techno”: an unorthodox fusion of sleek machine funk with woolly jazz, wonky soul, and occasional vocals from Robert Wyatt, an iconoclastic legend of the Canterbury scene.

Signals Into Space, only their second album in two decades, distills elements that have always been present in Ultramarine’s music into a potent new brew. Their sound is more refined than ever, but it’s hard to put your finger on what, exactly, that sound is. Warm, liquid synths and gently pulsing grooves scan as ambient, but vintage drum machines add teeth. The tone of the electric bass, muscular but understated, flashes to Tortoise’s spacious brand of post-rock. The watercolor wash of Ric Elsworth’s vibraphone and the searching saxophone of Iain Ballamy (a member of the group Food, with multiple albums for ECM and Rune Grammofon to his name) nod to ethereal jazz. The most fitting tag might be “Balearic,” given the album’s drowsy drift; there’s even a sample of a 1983 song by Orquesta de las Nubes, Suso Sáiz’s balmily experimental Spanish group.

Ultramarine call Signals Into Space—composed in a small, windowless room in an industrial complex in their native Essex—“an escapist record.” But it’s no mere pastiche of palm trees and Mediterranean tides. Its effects are more complex, even contradictory—a picture of white-sand beaches superimposed on dull cement walls, a dream of summer bundled in heavy down. Atmospheric and skeletal, their music projects outward yet turns inward.

Their oblique way of working tends to smudge edges. Instead of taking the lead, guitar and bass riffs add subtle adornment to softly cycling synth arpeggios and mysterious streaks of tone, bounced from tape to tape so many times that they’ve lost all trace of their original contours. On the title track, you can identify the provenance of some sounds, like the scrape of fingertips against coiled strings or the rustle of muted vibraphone. Others swim just past the limits of perception, like dark shapes beneath the surface of the water.

Still, Ultramarine’s music isn’t murky, exactly. They have learned from dub how to get the most out of empty space, from Talk Talk how to make elaborate studio artifice sound as natural as a single mic hung in the center of a candlelit room. Their sleight-of-hand sometimes makes it difficult to fix your attention on the music’s outlines. These are not melodies that stick with you after the song is finished. Instead, they’re rewarding while you’re in them, and that elusive quality has its own magnetism.

Their only real concession to center stage comes with Anna Domino, a singer who made a string of idiosyncratic synth-pop records for Les Disques du Crépuscule in the 1980s. She sings on four songs here, with mixed results. Her lovely voice is cool and controlled, but the presence of a vocal melody throws the music’s proportions out of whack. The jazzy lilt of “$10 Heel” and “Spark From Flint to Clay” feel out of keeping with the diffuseness of the music. Ballamy’s saxophone is a more natural fit, sometimes sliding like a blurry brushstroke across wet canvas. He’s often content just to add the faintest spot of color to the duo’s electronic textures, like a blush coming to the surface.

On the most successful of Domino’s songs, “Arithmetic,” her voice is harmonized, vocoded, and folded back into the fabric of the music, restoring the balance. The arrangement is beyond subtle: just reeds, Rhodes, reverb, and a twinge of birdsong, like a chain reaction of glancing accents and hints of things not quite heard. There’s a snatch of some foreign language, as though the recording has alighted on a distant radio station, and a powerful sense of groove. “Arithmetic,” sings Domino, her voice quiet and low, “Skies are streaming/You look up and get carried away.” It’s a fine approximation of how, at its best, Ultramarine’s music feels: a flash of logic and a fog of unknowing, the trace of an equation on a chalkboard wiped clean.

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