It’s rare that I fall in love with a band as quickly as I did with Ultraísta, but when you consider the lineup, it sort of makes sense. At the keys is UK producer Nigel Godrich, best known for producing the music of Radiohead, on drums is Joey Waronker, who has played with artists such as Beck, The Vines, and Bo Bice, and finally, on vocals is newcomer Laura Bettinson who ties the music together with her smooth jazzy voice. Their self-titled debut album has been playing on repeat in my car, on my computer, on my iPod for three days straight, as it never seems to get old.
The opening track, “Bad Insect,” douses listeners with warm synth melodies. At its base is a driving poppy beat and a droning bass line. When Bettinson’s vocals enter, the track suddenly acquires a deep longing unknown to most EDM. The subtle use of percussive textures that arise from the background imbue the song with a mystery that has kept me listening over and over again. What’s most inspiring is that “Bad Insect” is a simple song, working with one idea and exploring its many avenues. There’s a groove hidden in the ambience, a driving force rooted in the consistency of the drumming and the edgy-relaxed quality in Bettinson’s vocals. A killer opener.
Track two, “Gold Dayzz,” approaches EDM from a hip-hop angle. The bass line is forefront, patient and brooding, while the vocals are lazy and sexy. Fade in the drone synths, like a swarm of bees, giving the track subtle textures and melody. This track, again, takes a simple idea and develops it efficiently and intelligently. Its length is that of a pop song and is danceable on the level of an EDM track. The end result seemingly transcends genre restrictions.
Track four, “Strange Formula” lives up to its title with a 6/8 time signature, a descending triplet synth line, and waltzing bass. The bridge features ghostly, harmonized vocals that create a wide, melancholic atmosphere. The outro, perhaps my favorite portion of the track, sounds like a fading organ inside a cathedral. While there are only two sections in this track, cycled between each other, every return yields a greater energy, creating a “snowball” effect. Ultraista’s complex songwriting comes off as effortless. It feels neither forced nor artificial, the mark of true musicianship.
“Party Line,” demonstrates a complete change in structural formula. The drums seem to be pining for attention, as they are strained and uncomfortable, while Bettinson’s vocals sound as if they’re addressing each listener personally. Then bring in the unexpected but much-welcomed grand piano line, striking dense chords that echo to the edges of the stereo plane. This is of my favorite tracks because of how widespread it is, how exposed it is, and how much attention is paid to its details. It’s a careful song, but bold in its expressiveness. More jazz than EDM, but a welcome change of pace.
Track ten, “You’re Out,” brings a tasteful end to a truly enjoyable album. A lot happens in the first thirty seconds; a heavy disorienting drum beat, vocals bouncing off each other in either earphone, and a punchy synth line, making it hard for me to find your footing. I love Bettinson’s opening line, “someone catch my balance,” as it fits the atmosphere perfectly. There’s homage paid to Radiohead as the dreamy, confused atmosphere is reminiscent of a Jonny Greenwood guitar tapestry while the vocals, layered and clipped, bring to mind Thom Yorke with a loop pedal. The music eventually evens out with the introduction of the clap track, and the smooth synth lines ascending and descending in the back. And as the music slowly fades, the vocal loops finally reveal themselves as saying, “out of my mind, out of my mind.”
Overall, this is a unique and engaging album. It’s short and to the point; ten tracks, none longer than five minutes, most working with one idea and exploring it fully. What really makes Ultraísta stand out among other EDM artists is that they work as a band; everything in is conversation from the synth lines, to the vocals, to the drums. The songs were clearly written by experienced, talented musicians, not by amateurs who want to make noise on a sample board. On the other hand, this band works with a formula, which becomes apparent halfway through the album. Most tracks start and end the same. Also, the synth tones used are often the same, that buzzing drone written as a glissando or series of triplets. Most importantly, Ultraísta is a band with a voice, a jazzy, funky, sexy voice that doesn’t quit. This album is worth listening to multiple times. It’s both catchy and complex. A real gem.