19 Jun, 2013

Jon Hopkins – “Immunity”

hopkins_immunityJon Hopkins is not an amateur musician seeking to please critics or new fans with a hyper-promoted album release. While many Americans may be unaware of the London-born musician, Hopkins has amassed a body of work that includes three solo albums prior to “Immunity,” several film scores, contributions to a variety of well-known acts such as Coldplay, David Holmes, Brian Eno, and King Creosote, as well as a handful of notable remixes. As a child, Hopkins trained in classical piano at the prestigious Royal College of Music, and soon became fascinated with the emerging acid house scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s. While Hopkins had discovered a love for digital music – synthesis, samples, etc. – an interest in piano never faded, and to this day remains an equally prominent aspect of his rich sound. To describe his style, unique and ineffable, is not easy – however, a mélange of Ulrich Schnauss’ delicate highs, Paul Kalkbrenner’s driving basslines, and Burial’s intricate shuffle may begin to come close. “Immunity”, akin to others released by Domino Records, presents a richness and beauty grown from alternating segments of bass drops accompanied by glitch percussion, and piano melodies transcending ambient resonance. At times, the pleasure of listening to the intricate details of Hopkins’ meticulously-constructed sound is overridden by the primal and wonderful urge to dance which flows from Hopkins’ music effortlessly – after all, it is electronic music; dancing is essential.

Presented as two LPs of four tracks apiece, the Hopkins’ fourth solo release can be roughly divided into two halves, the first of which offers a bass-driven, shuffled percussion electro-sound infused with a little bit of that London grime.  The beginning of “Immunity” summons dark synth textures with minor chord hues, as well as pitch-bending bass drops and plucked highs that perhaps resemble the perpetual beeping of heart monitors (music’s everywhere, right?). Frequently, the top end of Hopkins’ sound, be it synth leads or disguised vocals, is soaked in eerie reverbs punctuated by patterned high hats and shakers of all qualities; two polarized textures that react off one another in lifelike ways. To set the groove, Hopkins employs kick drum and bass patterns that purposefully rush their final phrases in a manner that simultaneously surprises the listener, builds anticipation, and defines his minimalist beats in one fell swoop. Overall, the album begins and persists with danceable tracks that will have you smiling at their rhythmic brilliance, their coveted dirtiness, and the je-ne-sais-quoi that brings it all together (required listening: “Open Eye Signal”, “Collider”).

While the second half of “Immunity” represents a softer side, still interspersed are filtered basslines and four-to-the-floor kicks; however, they are subtly placed in the back of the mix, and serve to support dynamic melodies, meaningful chord progressions, and releases to the much-yearned-for fifth whose elusion so often teases us. These succeeding tracks are longer, more reflective, and have an emptiness to them that is often more difficult to successfully pull-off but can have fantastic results. Fearlessly, Hopkins employs such absence, skillfully orchestrating beauty into his music – not only in the sounds themselves, glowing and ethereal as they are – but also in the story these tracks tell. In the hands of your average electronic producer, delay lines and similar effects are commonplace, and can at their worst be used simply as gimmicks seeking to appease a passive listener. Here, Hopkins sculpts with them, and they dance audibly in, out, and across the mix; they become the tools of a craftsman, used to create something greater, not to pretentiously allege to be the thing itself (check out “Form by Firelight,” “Sun Harmonics”).

Allow me a moment of repetition: It is not easy to describe beauty. Reviewing the work of a wonderful musician who has spent an indefinable amount of time on a piece of art will infallibly result in incomplete understandings, unnoticed importance, or (hopefully few) false interpretations. Descriptions aside, good music evokes emotion. That’s what “Immunity” accomplishes – call it Electronica, call it Dance, the name is not what matters most. It’s what happens in between the start and the end of the record; it’s the delicate interaction of climaxes and breakdown, the movement, the emptiness. As a film scorer, Hopkins’ music has a tendency to elicit imagery, and I certainly feel this album is no exception. In an interview once, Hopkins spoke of receiving messages from listeners that describe scenery they have envisioned from his music, and noted that he likes such an open and interpretable aspect of his work. While I could just say, GO OUT AND BUY THIS ALBUM, I would instead like to offer my own imagery gathered from “Immuntiy”’s serenity and allure.

“Immunity”: with a deafening roar, rain spatters on the amorphous surface of choppy ocean, overpowering all but the panic within – groping with a blind madness, hands catch hold of stray flotsam, and at last, a full breath fills eager lungs. “Immunity”: racing for life through unfriendly forest, fueled by fear in a wild and erratic attempt to outrun a fiendish predator, only to suddenly find the smallest nook of perfect size, imperceptible to a creature of larger proportions; a haven of safety and security. “Immunity”: an ominous and bruised cumulonimbus overtakes the sun, threatening all below, and yet miraculously passes, replaced by its wispy, gossamer brothers that encourage the sun’s timid rays to once again pass through, unimpeded.

Review by David Riott

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