Barry Adamson – As Above So Below (Mute Records album, 1998)

Barry Adamson 'As Above So Below' artwork

mute records | stumm161 | 1998

Two years on from Oedipus Schmoedipus, As Above So Below added two further, intriguing, twists to Barry Adamson‘s palette of sounds.

The first found him using abrasive effects on the saxes and guitars, providing some tracks such as ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘The Monkey Speaks His Mind’ with an aggression that we weren’t hitherto used to hearing from this master of aural emotion. The twist gives the tracks a concise, straight-ahead atmosphere, delivering a short, sharp sonic punch to the senses. Take the opener ‘Can’t Get Loose’ which on some bizarre sounds like Andy Williams’ ‘Music To Watch Girls By’, commencing with some loud, boisterous guitars before moving into a rich easy-listening array of vibes and beats.

The second twist was perhaps the most surprising. After all, as the years went by we became used to Adamson reaching out into new musical areas in order to add greater depth to his textural sound design. The latest facet found Adamson actually singing on the majority of the tracks on As Above So Below, rather than using spoken word monologues or employing the skills of vocal collaborators.

Presented with the concept of Adamson as singer-songwriter, you may be forgiven for expecting the worst; I know I was – the first track I’d heard was ‘Jazz Devil’ on a Vox magazine promo CD, and I expected the whole album to be filled with variations on ‘Jazz Devil’ – namely humorous but kitsch story-telling. As a first foray, Adamson proves himself to be a talented singer, his voice capable of soaring impressively with a controlled emotion (as on the emphatic ‘Come Hell Or High Water’) or dropping down to a warm and confiding whisper. His time spent with Nick Cave obviously paid dividends.

The shift toward less instrumental sound design is borne out by the number of vocal tracks, which make up the majority of the album. However, the move toward the singer-songwriter genre has not prompted a move away from the luscious sounds Adamson is renowned for. We still get the jazz, the vibes, the perfect counterpoint string arrangements, the cunning deployment of stoned hip-hop beats, and we still get the wandering basslines and electronic experiments (check out the elongated effects on the intro to ‘Jesus Wept’). His cover of Suicide‘s ‘Girl’ is outstanding, more akin to his remix work with its intricate synth clusters and cracked metronomic drum machine rhythm, pushing his sound design into glitch-electronica territory.

An interesting and impressive move forward, As Above So Below had one major problem – its completeness and tightness actually casts a long shadow over its predecessor, Oedipus Schmoedipus. That’s not to take away the earlier album’s achievements, however that album now sounds somewhat ramshackle and inconsistent when heard immediately before this.

First published 2004; re-edited 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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