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Sunday, April 06, 2003  
Up In Flames

Start Breaking My Heart, Dan Snaith’s first album as Manitoba, was a pleasant example of ambient found-sound laptronica, all fizzpop clicks, gentle piano and mechanical percussion. Ultimately, despite its accomplishment and humanity, and some occasional sublime touches of elegiac brass or beguiling keys, it was an unremarkable exercise though, especially when compared to the work of Snaith’s friend and contemporary Kieron Hebdon under the guise of Four Tet. Mammals Vs. Reptiles may have had gentle moments redolent of Miles Davis or Laughing Stock era Talk Talk, but too many tracks walked the line of People Eating Fruit, a tune every bit as aimless as its title, or Lemon Yoghourt, the sound of a listless radiator slowly breaking down. But Up In Flames… Well, this is something else entirely…

A Canadian based in London with a background in classical piano and advanced mathematics, Snaith has taken the rulebook and put a match to it. The result is glorious; a seething, enticing mess of drums, guitars, keys, electronics, brass, anything and everything you care to imagine. I imagine if Snaith had had a kitchen sink to hand during recording, he would’ve played that too. In fact he probably did. Put simply, Up In Flames is a record in love with music made by a music lover, futurepsychenoisebeatpop that reaffirms how much fun music can and ought to be.

Snaith has taken his influences (and they are a broad array), cut them up into tiny delicious snippets, and stuck them back together in vibrant new patterns. The result is neither rock, dance, nor electronica, but rather something else entirely. Up In Flames appropriates the languages of disparate musical genres and reforms them within its own idiosyncratic semiotic scheme, defying the restrictive grammar of any one individual system. And so we have the dreamscape aesthetic of prime My Bloody Valentine tied to the raucous percussive chaos of The Chemical Brothers, the shuffling campfire acoustics of the formative Beta Band, and the intricate headphone balm of ambient electronica purveyed by Susumu Yokota. Laconic vocal harmonies in thrall to The Beach Boys breathe through washes of illusory noise. Opening track I’ve Lived By A Dirt Road All My Life is a clattering, woozy beginning, a mess of glorious twirling sonic frippery, upbeat and indecipherable; Skunks is a fusion of euphoric organ melodies and delightful percussion book ended with the bemused ribbit of a misplaced frog, climaxing with joltingly smashed drums and jazzy skronking.

There are more ideas within this extraordinary thirty-nine minute album then there are strictly room for as Snaith struggles to let loose his entire imagination in the space of just ten tracks. The juxtapositions thus presented can be dizzying; intense collisions of drums in exhilarating celebration of the beat give way to delicate string-laden passages; electric guitars make love to glockenspiels; electronic blips decorate honking clarinets; handclaps underpin collages of abstract sound. On first listen I was jerking, laughing and dancing with joy; many, many spins down the line and I’m no less caught up in childish reverie while this record oozes and jumps and rattles and oscillates from the speakers, enormous drums and beautiful noise combined. Snaith is happy to take risks and embark on sonic adventures, always making them accessible via irresistible percussion and melodies, upbeat and kinetic. Up In Flames is possessed of more oomph and verve than most other electronica, intricate enough to be a sublime headphone experience but visceral and propulsive enough to demand attention when channelled through cabinets at volume.

There’s so much here that it’s hard to think of Dan Snaith as anything but a childishly wilful dilettante, grabbing shiny sounds and interesting noises from wherever he sees them and putting them back together with such consummate skill and undeniable joi de vivre that he appears to know what he’s doing. But is being a dilettante so bad? Where Loveless was meticulously, painstakingly orchestrated, or Susumu Yokota is a master of mannered, controlled abstraction, Up In Flames is intuitive and spontaneous in its use of noise and sound, a level of accomplished, deliberate precision sacrificed in favour of a much more instinctual approach that reaps major benefits by embracing chaos rather than attempting to take charge of it. The purpose of this music is not to achieve a specific, pre-planned aesthetic goal but rather to capture a feel and an effect that reveals its own aesthetic goal on completion. Looking at it this way, Kevin Shields perhaps has more in common with a composer of classical music while Dan Snaith works in a realm closer to jazz. Of course, I may be wrong about this; but I don’t think I am. Up In Flames is far too carefree and expressionistic in its colours and lines for me to think otherwise, it has the life and energy of Kandinski or Picasso, not the delicate and affected control of Dali or Mondrian.

But beyond all this conjecture about intention and aesthetics there is the music and it is resolutely and consistently fantastic. Hendrix With KO melds breezy bah-bah-bahs with shuffling drums, piano and a miasma of whistles and swirls in a woozy moment of dreamy pop. DJ Shadow would be proud of the percussive mastery demonstrated on the eastern-tinged Kid You’ll Move Mountains, laced with flute and modest tectonic ambitions. Crayons is the only track to exist in recognisable laptop territory, a dose of appealing electronic summer melodicism featuring laughing children and wayward canines. The final track, Every Time She Turns Round It’s Her Birthday, is as wonderful as its title, the long-hoped for (by me at any rate) sound of The Chemical Brothers remixing MBV via The Flaming Lips and Spiritualized, overwhelmingly gathering momentum as it gallops towards the sunset, flutes & sax & organs & voices & drones gathered up in a surging rush of drums celebrating the very joy of its own sound, pausing for breath every so often before launching into another glorious wave of endorphin-blasting movement.

This record is so near to perfect that I could almost believe it’s been created just for me. Thirty-nine minutes of constant surprise and delight.

4/06/2003 11:12:00 pm


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005