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Interiors, the title of this new release from Ultramarine, may have a topical resonance for many listeners who have found themselves in involuntary confinement during the past year, but the five tracks on this EP were actually recorded in 2011, and they represent a significant opening out of the duo's evolving musical perspective.
Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond, who had become friends while growing up together in the Essex countryside, formed Ultramarine in 1989. Throughout the 90s their distinctive music, an enticing blending of acoustic with electronic instruments, secured a loyal following and won critical acclaim. Then, throughout the whole of the next decade, Ultramarine lay dormant. Interiors documents their reawakening, with Cooper and Hammond exploring approaches to music-making made possible by recently developed software, designed specifically with live performance in mind.
Four of the five tracks to be heard here were issued digitally last year. But as Paul Hammond has pointed out, "with Ultramarine the whole point is to create an artefact, so the form and the look of the finished product is central." That's an outlook shared passionately by Simon Lewin's label Blackford Hill, and the music now available on this vinyl record is appropriately enhanced with cover art by printmaker Katherine Jones. Her imagery matches the music neatly in its nuanced interplay of solidity and shadow, line and colour, geometric form and organic growth.
Ultramarine returned refreshed in October 2011, bursting back into public awareness with "Find A Way," issued as a 7" single on their own label, Real Soon. Clive Bell, writing in The Wire, extolled its engaging mix of electronic beats with cool vocals and tropical percussion. More generally Bell embraced Ultramarine's thoughtful hybrid electronica as "music you could enjoy at home without feeling your intelligence was being scorned, or that if you were not physically in a club, you were wasting your time."
On Interiors, the roots of that slinky single are laid bare on the purely instrumental track "Find A Way Back." Its two distinct parts stretch out the beats and flaunt those tropical flourishes, shuffling and flexing, vibrant and heady, languid and sultry. This is techno filtered through the fabric of magic realism, an exotically spiced concoction, chilled and ready to be savoured at home.
With the diagrammatic clarity of its punchy thrust and spooling loops "Even When" distils the essence of Cooper and Hammond's way of working with their musical material: layering and shaping, nurturing textures, plaiting rhythms and juggling accents. The cumulative impact is almost sculptural in its physical immediacy and looming presence. In contrast, on "By Return" the duo skew the outcome, projecting a selection of limber figures into dub's auditory hall of mirrors. They are clearly revelling in the reverb, relishing the recoil and decay.
Interiors ultimately opens out onto "Decoy Point (Version)." With its ozone saturated ambience, this closing track evokes marshland and mudflat soundscapes, seabird mews, maritime signals and tidal wash. Cooper and Hammond feel deep attachment to the Essex landscape and, in particular, to the local history and physical features of the Blackwater estuary. Blackford Hill provides an accommodating home for Ultramarine's ongoing project Blackwaterside, which has featured to date a 7" vinyl record plus 28-page booklet, and a photo film with soundtrack. Now, delving into the Ultramarine archive, this welcome incarnation of Interiors offers a fascinating glimpse of the duo finding their bearings, at a vital stage along the way.
“Music you could enjoy at home without feeling your intelligence was being scorned, or that if you were not physically in a club, you were wasting your time.” - The Wire
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