When I was a toddler I often wondered what it would be like to be inside our washing machine. The spinning cycle was pretty hypnotizing to watch, so at the time I thought being inside a drum with all that warm soapy clothing would be a gentle experience. Of course my parents never allowed me to give it a try and I forgot all about it. Until I heard Anna Meredith that is.
Yep, listening to Anna Meredith’s first full album, Varmints, is sort of like stepping into a washing machine. The almost 50 minute programme however is not always as gentle as I once hoped for. Instead a full cycle through Meredith’s compositions is no easy trip in which interchanging phases of merciless beatdowns and soothing breathers keep on coming at you.
Before discussing Varmints in more detail it’s always nice to know what 38-year-old classical composer Anna Meredith is all about. Well, as a matter fact Meredith has been among Britain’s most talented composers for quite some time now. She experienced her major breakthrough in 2008 through her compositions for Last Night of the Proms of that year. She won several awards for her classic pieces en was called “exhilarating” by The Times, “a tour de force” by The Guardian and “wicked” by The Independent. Next to her orchestral works Meredith also wanders off into the world of electronic music every now and then. Although a some purists look down on this step she is pretty successful in this scene in which she supports artists like These New Puritans and James Blake. Also she subsequently brought out solo two EP’s a few years ago containing adventurous electronica.
Varmints opens with the face slapping ‘Nautilus’ we already know from her 2012 EP Black Prince Fury. ‘Nautilus’ grotesque double interweaved horn fanfare at first seems like a frightening redesign of John Williams’, ‘The Imperial March’. However it goes beyond this simplistics after a bellowing horn, off-beat stadium drum hit in hard and and a deep wobbling synth brings all to a lock in. Meredith’s gloriously provokes the stuffy classical conventions here, paradoxically by mutilating every corner in the spacious halls in which classical concerts usually take place.
After you have fully braced yourself for what’s next, Meredith releases the pressure and opens up her eclectic side. With the lighter arrangements of catchy chorused ‘Taken’ and the oriental-like ‘Scrimshaw’, which reminds of the work of Gold Panda, ‘R-Type’ brings us back up to speed. For those who grew up in the 80s playing side scrolling Sci-Fi shooter video games like Menace or Life Force the title ‘R-Type’’ should soun’ familiar. It is indeed a full bodied ode to the 1987 space shooter with arpeggios swirling around each other that resemble the waves of enemies coming at you. With guitar riffs in the mid you get the feeling you are battling a mini-boss for a moment whist the sharp synths at the end of the track are synonymous for the dramatic defeat of the, inevitably huge, final boss.
After a short-lived moment of relief on ‘Dowager’ the tempo is pumped up again on ‘The Vapours’ which is like an assembly line that is going faster and eventually spins out of control under the tones of the bombastic horns we also heard on the album’s opener. Again relief makes master of the album on the edgy false violins of ‘Honeyed Words’ and the sweet sung ‘Last Rose’ that sounds like an overdone version of a Ghibli movie ending. Meredith cleverly knows not to leave it with this and ends Varmints in style with the apotheotic ‘Shill’ that gruesomely tramples out of your speakers, followed by the sooting drawn-out strings and organ of ‘Blackfriars’.
Viewed from a holistic perspective I would say Varmints is an attempt to put down a balanced track listing with a challenging array of styles to come along with that. The demanding instrumentals such as ‘R-Type’, ‘Shill’ and of course ‘Nautilus’ give the album its unique selling point whilst the vocalized tracks are less exciting. The album is therefore of a restless nature and like a washing machine speeds up, tempoes down, speeds up and so forth. It the process it mixes up all kinds of laundry into the a colourful fresh new whole and at several occasions made my brain rotate so fast that at times I felt beaten down to the core
The eclecticism of Varmints therefore is the album’s main bravoure but is not necessarily its touchstone to success. This however is not what she is after: “I wouldn’t know how to leap about and smash my clarinet off an amp”, she told The Guardian with a smile. Anna Meredith just wants to bring colour to grey area between classical and pop music. Varmints is a progressive take on doing just so but still is a solid piece to chew on for the masses.
Label: Moshi Moshi, 2016
- Nautilus (5:30)
- Taken (4:50)
- Scrimshaw (4:43)
- Something Helpful (3:13)
- R-Type (4:42)
- Dowager (5:22)
- The Vapours (6:33)
- Honeyed Words (3:17)
- Last Rose (3:31)
- Shill (2:47)
- Blackfriars (2:58)
Anna Meredith on Twitter
Review by Wander Meulemans // 150716