Available on: Planet Mu LP
Vocals in electronic music spark strong emotions. Sampled vocals are kosher, sure, but when you start doing your own, things can get hairy. Glaswegian Rudi Zygadlo toes this line as he incorporates his own idiosyncratic, androgynous vocals into eccentric dubstep-leaning music. If James Blake is this scene’s civilized crooner, then Zygadlo is its glam rock singer, adorned in ridiculous outfits singing equally ridiculous songs.
That feeling of absurdity is at the core of Great Western Laymen, Zygadlo’s debut LP, released on the venerably weird Planet Mu imprint. Laymen actually makes for a very accurate microcosm of what might be considered the Planet Mu sound in 2010: excessively colourful, exaggerated, playful, and unique. As such, it sits quite nicely next to their recent releases from Slugabed, Starkey, Kuedo and Terror Danjah.
There’s just something odd about this album. Despite the variety of moods, sounds, and instruments, there’s no mistaking the fact that it’s the work of one person alone. Intensely idiosyncratic, the lyrics (when intelligible, anyway) carry a vague feeling of alienation as well as indulging in references to history and literature. The album begins with the reserved ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’, with a tenuous vocal melody that barely holds itself upright while synths circle excitedly around each pivot point like glowing fireflies.
It’s this sense of exaggerated movement that paradoxically keeps the album afloat while pulling it under. After a while, you can only take so much whirling and sliding and spinning before you begin to feel sick, but Zygadlo is like an excited child who keeps insisting on another go. This is most evident in the album’s opening stretch, such as ‘Layman’s Requiem’ where every sound seems to be in some sort of maniacal motion; even quieter moments like ‘A Room To Sing’ are rudely interrupted by cartoonish noises – springs, boings, and wows.
Not to sound entirely negative, Zygadlo’s music is captivating and interesting at the least, even if hard to take completely seriously. A few of the songs incorporate the type of mid-range wobble so prevalent in “filthy” frat dubstep to hilarious effect, sending them sliding across the tracks like motor-powered slinky toys to the point of pastiche.
When Zygadlo isn’t making tongue-in-cheek genre exercises he’s simply making good songs: a good half of Laymen is grounded in Zygadlo’s uncommon musical vision. ‘Missa Per Brevis’ charges forth with a roaring saxophone, bound to garner comparisons to late seventies Bowie, while lead single ‘Resealable Friendship’ sees the most comfortable use of vocals on the LP, a memorable chorus set apart by long instrumental verses of bent guitar melodies and eruptions of liquid bass. The very best moment is the tortuously short ‘Filthy Logic’, where the vocals are kept to simple choral “oohs” as a dramatic piano riff explodes and splinters into several different threads, building up tension and mood around its earworm of a riff.
Rudi Zygadlo’s debut is a conflicting release. On the one hand, he’s got a decent, original sound, and he’s a fine songwriter, adept at both instrumentals and poppier fare. However, I’ll be damned to figure out exactly quite what his thing is, and his debut long-player doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer. It’s a thrilling listen as it traverses styles and explores jewel-encrusted avenues lit by Christmas lights, but often feels unfocused, only tied together by its weirdness and penchant for the unexpected instead of proper cohesion.
So much of the attention surrounding Zygadlo is centered on his vocals, but on this album the songs veer from half-finished lyrical snippets (‘Resalable Friendship’) to buried, affected murmurs (‘Perfect Lust’) to songs with barely any vocals at all – again, where’s the cohesion? Zygadlo is an exciting prospect, he just needs to settle down and find his sound. In the meantime, Great Western Laymen is a solid debut, more like a series of snapshots showing what Zygadlo could do than an exhibition of what he currently does best.