Stateless: Matilda (Ninja Tune, 3/1/11)
Year in and year out, the UK never fails to deliver forward-thinking electronic music — yet there are none doing it quite like Stateless. On its second full-length album, Matilda, the London-based four-piece has blended technical, sample-based music with a strong sense of conceptual songwriting and live instrumentation.
Carefully composed melodies and lyrics meet dark electronic beats and dubstep wobbles to provide a surprisingly appealing contrast. Anchored by the soulful vocal deliveries of Chris James, intense rhythm dynamics cover a dense range of sonic atmospherics, from epic electronic rock to down-tempo grooves and stirring ballads with ambient interludes.
“We try to achieve a balance,” James explains, “where lyrics and song are just as important as the beats and electronics. There is a lot of amazing production around now which you can tap into, but not much of them have lyrics and vocals — we’re bridging the gap between the two worlds.”
However, for Stateless — a band composed of James, bassist and vocalist Justin Percival, turntablist and all-around programmer Kidkanevil, and drummer David Levin — the journey here has been long and arduous. From its first demo, “Prism #1,” back in 2003, Stateless signed a record deal with Sony Music, only to have it terminated soon after the label merged with BMG.
“We were much more creatively motivated than financially motivated,” James says, looking back. “We were all about the music, and they were all about the profit.”
It was a lesson learned for the young band, whose genre-defying ideals were not suited for the major-label mentality. The band continued to work, releasing two EPs to a growing international following and gaining particular attention from the legendary DJ Shadow. Soon after, James provided vocals on two tracks on DJ Shadow’s The Outsider, followed by a massive international tour, with Stateless opening for all of the UK dates.
Growing up listening to DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking debut, Endtroducing…, Stateless took inspiration from the beat-smith’s dedication and approach to music. “We might have seen him over 80 times,” James says. “We were picking up on his little details and beats; that sort of attention to detail is something we wanted with our music.” In turn, this detail has become something of Stateless’ calling card — a finesse that it showed on its 2007 self-titled record, released on Berlin’s !K7 Records.
It was a striking debut marked by intricate Bristol-style breakbeat rhythms and piano-, string-, and synth-driven melodies. The band was locked into a groove that was border-less, exploring a musical tension between orchestral strings and turntable scratches. Matilda, in many ways, is the next logical step in the band’s direction. The record is its first release on Ninja Tune, the London-based independent label that’s home to some of the greatest electronic acts of the past two decades. Digging deeper into electronic territory and pushing the limits of its songwriting, Stateless seems to have found the perfect home for the album.
“I suppose we’re a band of a generation influenced by electronic technology. If we were our age in the ’60s or ’70s, we’d just be playing electric guitar all the time. But as it happened, we were born now and mess around on laptops.
Above anything else, Matilda reveals a matured and evolved band that’s striving for something greater. In lieu of new production is a more pronounced songwriting sensibility. Both singers complement the music’s electronic elements well, with lyrics that ride a line between fantasy and reality.
James notes his different approach: “As opposed to writing in the first person, which I was doing on the first album, I was trying to write something more theatrical and cinematic, as if the album was stage play, and you have these different characters and forces at work within that space.”
“There [was] a lot of stuff that we made that didn’t fit the theme of things,” Percival adds. “It was bit of a fight to have it read like a proper story.”
Matilda begins with “Curtain Call,” where, in silence, scenes and characters take their place, waiting for acts to arrive. Though slow and brooding as it begins, the electronic chaos that erupts by mid-song sets the tone for everything to come after. Everything swells into the same frequency, resulting in a massive sound of equal parts. The reverb-thick synthesizers carry into a hard-hitting industrial drum kit, while heavy delay and slowed-down pitch effects make James’ falsetto-charged hook sound like it holds some cryptic message. It’s a point of no return for most, but Stateless is able to balance lulling guitar and electronic hysteria. By the end, it’s a full-blown sonic assault, with free-jazz horns dialing up the treble and heavy dubstep grumblings shaking the bass.
The record’s subterranean electronic elements can be traced to the work of Bjork producer Damian Taylor, who produced the record in Vancouver while the band recorded its parts in London. Though Stateless has utilized samples in the past, “The electronic beats are the biggest change in terms of production,” James explains. “We were taking Kidkaniviel’s beat patterns through a process on Damian’s end, who was beat-mapping and replacing samples with different electronic glitches and sounds.”
At times subdued, like on the deeply R&B-influenced “Miles to Go,” and at other times used to complement string sections, as on “Ballad of NGB,” the technique provides stellar results throughout the album. Its most gratifying instances, however, are all over “Ariel” and the massive bass-and-synth outro in “Assassinations.” The former is driven by a sample found by DJ Shadow. “I thought it was a gypsy guitar riff, but then there were loads of people hitting up the Internet saying it was a Greek bouzouki,” James says.
No matter its origins, the sample is used to great effect, giving “Ariel” a worldliness, matched by the driving percussion, that comes off almost tribal. Electronic twinges and fills find their way between the weighty kick and tight hi-hat, brought together by James’ commanding and sensual voice. Owning a falsetto as emotionally stirring as Jeff Buckley’s, James is not afraid to use it, soaring over synths and R&B-flavored bass riffs with ease.
It’s a vocal style best heard on “I’m on Fire,” a stand-out track featuring the vocals of Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Arriving after the mimetic ambient interlude of “Red Sea,” the song demonstrates the band’s breadth, a beautifully minimal waltz ballad. “We recorded the vocals live in her front room — just really simple with two microphones set up,” James explains. It shows on the final product; effortless vocal harmonies swell beyond the soft bed of electronic ambience and strings.
Though it’s a song that packs less of a punch, it’s indicative of the broader shift in Stateless’ music. The band is becoming less reliant on trip-hop beats and instead is playing with a more eclectic aesthetic, all the while giving Taylor creative freedom in production. But with much of the programming done by Kidkanevil, and with Percival and Levin providing a solid rhythm section, Matilda is as organic as it is sampled — yet it’s done so cunningly that it’s impossible to tell the difference.
The remarkable Balanescu Quartet offers some of those organic sounds on “Ballad of NGB” and later on “Song for the Outsider.” Dedicated to DJ Shadow, “Song for the Outsider” is Stateless’ most ambitious work to date, crisscrossing between classical strings and electronic pop in epic turns. The result is theatrical and jarring, a surreal mix that cuts in and out like scenes of a film. Bringing the song to an end is an inspiring violin solo from Alex Balanescu; his aggressive strings pierce through the raging bass riff and dirty electronic noise in defining fashion. “Everyone in the control room was pinned against the windows,” Percival remembers. “Everyone was just watching; it was an amazing moment in the studio sessions.”
The real privilege in listening to Matilda is hearing these diverse sounds coalesce into one driving musical force. Stateless does it so well that it’s hard to think of another band with the same aesthetic. “We have so many different avenues at our disposal, so why not mash them up?” Percival asks. “Why not put more different things together and make it more unique in that respect?”
“I suppose we’re a band of a generation influenced by electronic technology,” James says. “If we were our age in the ’60s or ’70s, we’d just be playing electric guitar all the time. But as it happened, we were born now and mess around on laptops. When you have someone like Kidkanevil, who works all the time on beats and production, you have a wide resource of sound to work with.”
Perhaps Stateless’ greatest quality is its fearless ambition to mix it all up. An album that reinforces the meaning of the term “album,” Matilda is an encompassing work that, if listened to from start to finish, will get the respect that it deserves as an ambitious and far-reaching undertaking.