Review: The New Lines // 'All That We See And Seem' [The Great Pop Supplement]

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4 jan. 2012, 21h02m



September 5th 2011 marks 34 years since NASA’s Voyager 1 embarked on a journey to the heavens. The spacecraft currently teeters on the edges of our solar system, the furthest man-made object from Earth, soaring like a bird in search of new horizons and is now entering a new region of space never explored by human civilization. The thought of this man-made machine wandering blind into the dark is a profound one. On a human scale, it plays vital to the progress of science and exploration, and the understanding of us. Personally, I feel this achievement relates deeply with the most mundane and common things in everyday life. It is the grandest of cosmic events such as these that weave the tapestry of time and life in the universe. If you can somewhat relate to this rambling, then you might like this new band I have discovered: The New Lines.

After having gone through phases of devouring and researching vintage records, I have been getting into new/contemporary music, and two scenes have notably grabbed my attention this year: firstly a few progenies of ‘library music’ (The Advisory Circle, Belbury Poly), and secondly an 80s revival that has cluster-bombed into an ever-present force in modern pop; A.K.A.: chillwave, glo-fi, witch house, electro pop, dream pop etc. Sleep ∞ Over and John Maus are two examples for whom I’ve found admiration for - I feel they most effectively channel 80s pop values and production techniques with spoonfuls of nostalgic homage and reverence. Whether you reject these new-age revivalists as drivelling nonsense is up to you.

Something which has lacked presence in 2011 is psychedelic pop, which very recently used to be luminously championed by Birmingham band, Broadcast. After the sad passing of lead singer, Trish Keenan, the music world has lost a great talent. But to everything there is a season, and 2011 welcomes a new sage; Hewson Chen and his Brooklyn outfit The New Lines. Easily comparable with the experimental pop of Broadcast, I have recently discovered demos of these remarkable new cosmic voyagers, and their new record (my personal favourite of 2011) All That We See And Seem is something special. Their sound is a blend of 60s and 70s influences, ranging from dark concréte library music, sixties-inspired psychedelia to Italian horror soundtracks, dream pop and new age cosmic synth. They have a retro-futuristic space-age feel about them, and the composed, morose vocals of Hewson Chen are comparable to Stephen Merritt of the The Magnetic Fields. The blend of Chen’s vocals, which sound like a Wiccan priest delivering a ritual séance, balances the tension against the beautifully arranged chamber-pop orchestrations. Often pensive, the results are what you would expect if Carl Sagan mastered the moog; full of mood, rhapsodic romance, and rich textures succulent with buzzing tones, propelling jazz rhythms, algorithmic bleeps, fountains of reverb and other garbled effects, anthemic swells, spacey analogue organs, and intricate guitar hooks; It is a fusion that is infectious, sweet-sounding, wistfully alleviating and hypnotic.

If you recall late 90s band Vitesse, a duo comprised of Joshua Klein and Hewson Chen who released four albums of colourfully affectionate lo-fi synth-pop, there are retrospective nuances of Vitesse that can be heard in The New Lines, such as the circling synth patterns and concurrent melodies reminiscent of 80s goth-pop, which run beneath Chen’s warm comforting baritone. Let me just clarify that The New Lines are not one-trick ponies of synthery. Chen has a knack for really beautiful lullaby-ing melodies, murky organ-led vignettes, and fuzzy modular synth warbles. The themes and references in All That We See And Seem are pretty varied and absorbed in poetic realism and mystic kitsch, but musically they mirror the essence of 60s psych folk, which has its roots in early medieval/renaissance/baroque music. I am reminded of Pentangle (sadly another band that also lost their chief instigator this year, Bert Jansch), who lend their foundations in traditional music to The New Lines’ sound, with significant emphasis on the haunting modal progressions and the ‘bell-like’ guitar sound of Chen’s guitar figures.

With All That We See And Seem, Chen offers us an LSD-spiked world of retro-futurism and early science fiction that could easily provide the soundtrack to a trippy 1960s public information video on space exploration. But in between the lines, there is deep conceptual alchemy at work - ATWSAS reflects our ancient ancestors’ eagerness to understand the universe. Our universe - a cosmological box of mysteries that generated a sense of wonder and imagination upon wide-eyed discoverers. This natural curiosity to understand the cosmos has a wonderful charm and purity about it, but as we know today, we have discovered a more powerful and potent method of understanding the universe: science. It is the will to experiment, the desire to explore and remove the veil of the divine that stands out in the history of time, and all naive curiosity merely becomes a fleeting dream for fantasy and fairytale. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a cultural emergence of contemporary paganism and folk custom, which paralleled the birth of the space rocket, and also the popularisation of electronic music. With these timely arrivals brought experimentation and discovery, such as early electronic synths, oscillators, and patchwork. The pioneers of these practices such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (the incidentals are a humble nod), the cosmic new-age electronics of Roger Davy, and the Jazz-infused jams of Basil Kirchin and Charles Bellonzi reveal Chen’s impeccable music tastes. A flavour of jazz pop underpins the groovy element of ATWSAS, which is crucial. The songs are consistency strong, abundant with detail and mind-blowing hooks, and sound collages which will reward with further listening. The unconventional time signatures and analogue synths fit with the infectious spectral pop that found province in science fiction films and outer-space abstractionist producers like Phil Spector. Perhaps Chen’s most overt homage to his unofficial patron saints The Beach Boys, is the propulsive use of timpani, which beats like the heart of the universe.

The experimental effects and strange alien electronics layered into each song create a disorientating wave of dystopian melancholy, and to glorious effect, much like your favourite Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Library music/Oram admirers would find enjoyment in the incidentals, as Chen momentarily fiddles with synthesizers, sequencers and modulators like a madman, creating unholy, nauseatingly nightmarish sounds (ala My Bloody Valentine); mostly pre-industrial plink-plonk, saddled with drum grooves and timpani gestures, bleeps and bloops, and little formal structure. These entirely electronic and very claustrophobic extracts, demonstrate a versatile capacity in The New Lines to induce a feeling of paranoid confusion between reality and fantasy; keeping true to the album title. Taking a cue from established library and film composers such as Umiliani, Alessandroni, Boneschi, etc… he’s not afraid to experiment with unconventional sounds alongside the more standard jazz and rock-based aesthetics. I get the feeling that he could crank out a few records like these in a couple of hours if needed; a seemingly simple palette of phased whooshes, echoed guitar twangs, and random electro fizz somewhere in the mess.

The most danceable song on the album, title-track, “All That We See And Seem” brings distinct 60s pop vibes with a catchy chiming guitar hook riding an outrageously fetching groove, awash with galvanising synth tones that lay down the cosmic boogie-woogie. The sultry tones of “The Convenience of Numbers” are utterly transporting from the get-go, transposing jazz-inflicted pop to rarefied galactic heights. Another highlight, “The Falaise Gap”, majestic drones in 3/4 give the anachronistic proposal of space travel as envisioned in the 1940s, and the beautifully blissed-out “Buildings to Photograph” which is like euphoric trip to the moon. Sweeping all epics aside, the divine splendour of “Voyager Program 1977”, the climax of ATWSAS, sets off the goosebumps, evoking the romance of the Voyager 1 flight. The complex layering of guitars and harmonies on “A Hunter’s Penance” is a compelling arrest of melody and rhythm. In “Strain Theory”, swabs of sonic sorcery unfold slowly and magically like an epic celestial journey keeping your head firmly in the stratosphere… where it should be. These are clouds of sounds to lose yourself in; vintage electronics swirl through layers of airtight sequences of overlapping and propelling 3/4 rhythms amid a rich bed of swelling organ patterns and buzzing oscillations, like an elegant dance of celestial light. One very insignificant criticism is the omitted “off axis”, which was previously released on a split 7” with Still Corners. Without comparing too much to Silver Apples, “Off Axis” sounds like a druidic witch-hunt for a ceremonial sacrifice, leading to a celebratory rave in the nearby haunted woodlands. This description could easily translate to most songs on ATWSAS. The combination of shimmering synths and freak-out drum-thrashing in the gothic “The Grim Smile of the Five Towns” for instance, transcends all heights of consciousness and might just be the last word in hauntology.

Chen’s grandiose ambition of capturing the essence of psychedelic pop of the 60s and the synthesiser is irresistible and his penchant for the golden age of science fiction and new-age optimism is a poignant rejoicing of the futurist paradigm: “the future of tomorrow today” - the exhilarating power of the imagination. Jim Jupp of Belbury Poly, fittingly draws attention to early electronic/cosmic-synth pioneers such as Walter Carlos, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream as a major inspiration: ‘I think it’s the fact that they were exploring what must have been mind-blowing technology, and giving free rein to musical ideas that had no pre-existing language. There’s also something supernatural in the sound of modular synths and mellotrons; they always seemed the natural soundtrack for a golden age of science fiction and that Erich von Daniken-era pop culture of ancient astronauts and earth mysteries.’ Under a title that nods to the supernaturally-attuned poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, All That We See And Seem is much an invocation to dream-dwelling as it is a realisation of self, and the understanding of the universal consciousness. What an absolute delight. More please, Mister Chen.

Glen Rowlan, December 2011



All That We See And Seem [The Great Pop Supplement, 2011], out now
Further listening: Witches' Milk [Moon Glyph, 2011], out now

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