Graduating from Aphex Twin's Rephlex label to Warp, UK producer/DJ Leila pulls out all the stops on ''Blood, Looms and Blooms''. From collaborating with chanteuse (and muse to Tricky and Danger Mouse) Martina Topley Bird, to incorporating everything from deep techno to postmodern hip-hop and classic soundtrack styles, ''Blood, Looms and Blooms'' is the most original album you're likely to hear in 2008.
Review by Heather Phares
Her first album in eight years and her Warp debut, Leila's Blood, Looms and Blooms almost didn't happen: after the release of 2000's moody, murky The Courtesy of Choice, she lost both of her parents and, for a long time, her interest in making music. With the encouragement of her friends and family, Leila returned to the studio and recorded these songs, often with her family and friends -- who include Terry Hall and Martina Topley-Bird -- in there with her. While Blood, Looms and Blooms' very existence is somewhat surprising, it's even more remarkable that this is Leila's most uplifting work, given the loss that preceded it. Far from wallowing in grief (though that would certainly be understandable), Leila crafts vivid tracks that cast as much light as they do shadow. "Little Acorns" is downright mischievous, bouncing along on a good-natured beat as Khemahl and Thaon Richardson hum and babble with childlike glee. Terry Hall's tracks borrow some of the Specials' forays into woozy, carnivalesque atmospheres: "Time to Blow"'s winding melody and tumbling keyboards update his unique brand of whimsy, while album closer "Why Should I Worry," a duet between Hall and Topley-Bird, plays like a show tune that's somehow nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. The ominous undercurrents of Like Weather and The Courtesy of Choice also resurface, especially on "Mollie," which opens Blood, Looms and Blooms with some very uneasy listening: a blippy drum machine beat gives way to dense distortion and huge swaths of atmospheric electronics while skittering percussion and a vaguely Middle Eastern melody lurk in the background, creating an exquisite -- and exquisitely tense -- atmosphere. The only song more massive on Blood, Looms and Blooms is the wittily named "Mettle," which, with its giant fuzz bass, lapping water, and guitars corroded with distortion, sounds like an enormous engine pumping at the center of the world. Even the tracks that recall the monochromatic territory of Leila's previous albums, such as "Daisies, Cats and Spacemen" (which is sung by her sister, Roya Arab) and the funky yet dramatic Topley-Bird showcase "Deflect," have something unique unfolding at every turn, while "Lush Dolphins"' playfully darting synth melodies and "The Exotics"' otherworldly lounge break entirely new sonic ground for her. Well worth the wait, Blood, Looms and Blooms offers more proof of why Leila has been hailed by Gilles Peterson, Aphex Twin, and Björk since she started making music.
Blood, Looms and Blooms
Combined Rating: 80%
The experimental music movement Fluxus produced a number of pieces designed to use traditional instruments in non-traditional and unintended ways. A piano used as a mantle for a vase of flowers was just as legitimately musical as its employment for virtuosic ivory tinkling. Flash forward a few decades and you have early techno and house producers who bragged about having thrown out the manuals upon buying a new piece of equipment. The goal here was similar: to extract something new and unique from an instrument by purposefully ignoring how it was “supposed” to be used.
Enter Leila Arab, a keyboardist from London by way of Iran. In the mid ’90s, Björk adopted her as a part of her touring band, assigning her the role of keyboards and live mixing; the latter being something that Leila had relatively little experience with. We’re talking about Björk, so rather than trying to crash Leila into the traditional mixing knowledge, the Icelandic queen of whimsy was happy to assign Leila the role of a “terrorist,” and let her perform sometimes-radical transformations on the music. Learning from such an iconoclast, it was inevitable that Leila’s solo forays into electronic music would be something special, and, one solo album on Richard D. James’ Rephlex imprint later, this came to fruition.
And then, nothing for nearly ten years. It’s fitting, for an artist as unique and uncompromising as Leila, that comeback would be so sudden and strong. Blood, Looms and Blooms picks up where 1998’s Like Weather and 2000’s Courtesy of Choice left off, with a stylistic pastiche that manages to sound like nothing else on the market. Some things have changed—namely, both of Leila’s parents have passed away, the result of which can be read in the liner notes specifically thanking her “blood,” and heard in the fragility of “Daisies, Cats and Spacemen,” featuring her sister Roya. Over Portishead-esque backing of melancholy strings and distant drum samples, the Arab sisters are confronting a dark and unsettling world, yet they have musical collaboration to bind them. The antique music boxes and backwards orchestrations on “Daisies” evoke damaged old-timey radio, while Roya’s vibrato-laden, jazzy inflections fit in perfectly with such an ancient and pristine soundscape.
The collaborators—mostly singers—on Blood are well-placed. Martina Topley-Bird’s smokey whisper floats well over the noisy guitars and overdriven drums and bass on “Deflect,” the closest thing to a “rock song” here, which is periodically taken over by washes reverb and feedback. Like the best moments on Blood, “Deflect” is evidence of Leila’s non-traditional roots, as stiff drum machines are thrown against wolf wails and horribly fuzzy bass. If most music producers accept their roles as master chefs, Leila prefers to go crazy with the ingredients, resulting in a shock to the musical palette. Blood is also full of unexpected curves; “Deflect” is followed by a meditative cover of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” featuring Luca Santucci on fragile, frighteningly intimate and gradually distorted singing, while Leila delights in taking a warm pad bass and kitchen sink percussion in and out of rhythmic phase. It’s a jarringly fresh look at an old favorite, and manages to be unique without sounding experimental for the hell of it.
Blood can be a dark affair, but it positively shines with optimism and childlike whimsy on “Little Acorns.” A horn-based exercise, featuring Khemani and Thaon Richardson as play-singing children, “Acorns” is a surreal take on kids’ double-dutch on a hot summer day. Keeping “Acorns” in mind, one can begin to see Leila as a kind of Roald Dahl: this music is dark, but in a way that invites exploration and titillation, rather than scaring the listener away. The Plaid-esque caverns on “Carplos” coax the listener to bathe in Leila’s shimmering symphonic pads, while opener “Mollie” rains down tears of Technicolor frequencies, and “Mettle” relies on actual dripping water for its percussive foundation. Specials frontman Terry Hall takes vocal duties on the mysterious nursery rhyme that is “Time To Blow,” ethereal quivers of voice over a singsong repetition of bass vibes.
All that said, you know what? You could have skipped this review and just looked at that cover art. It’s magnificent, it’s magical, and, much like Leila and her music, it stabs at you just that much more because there isn’t anything else out there that’s quite comparable. It’s rather difficult to describe the feelings and aural excitements wrought by Blood, Looms and Blooms, but suffice to say it’s the work of a powerfully brilliant and individual artist. Now go get terrorized.
16 August 2008