By Josh Lehman
iTunes boldly pigeonholes SBTRKT’s (pronounced “subtract”) sophomore studio album Wonder Where We Land as electronic. However, Aaron Jerome, the man beneath the exotic tribal SBTRKT mask, has touched upon a multitude of genres with his cache of distinguished features. The 15-track record includes appearances from up-and-coming rapper A$AP Ferg, Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, British electronic soul singer Sampha and many more. Collaborators on the deluxe edition’s six additional tracks include Warpaint, Raury, Boogie and Andrew Ashong.
A noteworthy track is “Temporary View,” which highlights featured singer Sampha’s hauntingly high register over a plethora of electronic rifts and shifting futuristic sounds. Sampha seems to be the collaborator of choice for SBTRKT, having had a hand in SBTRKT’s first studio album From Arctic to Alpine (2011). Hit tracks such as “Trials of the Past” and “Hold On” from the first album receive a much-welcomed encore in “Temporary View,” “Gon Stay,” “Wonder Where We Land,” “If It Happens” and “Maybe.” Jerome does a masterful job of letting the fragile yet mesmerizing vocals of Sampha breathe; too often other artists drown out vocals with noisy splashes of synthesizer and overwhelming bass lines.
SBTRKT does not disappoint his steadfast electronic fans. His unparalleled sense of rhythm and sound pairing is best exemplified in the track “Lantern.” The song slowly fades in a bar of oscillating notes that emulate the rhythm of a strobe light, only to be interrupted by a series of charming harp-like chords, which are an acoustic interpretation of the feeling of incertitude broken up by an angelic force.
This battle of light and dark electronic rhythms is a trend set by the song “Go Bang” in From Arctic to Alpine, which was the subject of unsatisfactory sampling by Manhattan rapper Skizzy Mars with his song “No Curfew.”
This was not the only beat of SBTRKT’s to be botched by a rapper. Rap mogul Drake created a lackluster “Wildfire” (OVO Remix). This convinced me that SBTRKT was not meant to be rapped over, and one can imagine my dismay when A$AP Ferg was listed as a possible collaborator on this album. Thankfully, the resulting “Voices In My Head” is an incredible surprise; A$AP Ferg rides the spacey beat with a flow more similar to a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony member than to his past “Shabba” and “Work” styles. Ferg’s smooth yet sporadic rhyme scheme matches perfectly with SBTRKT’s accompaniment of declining piano lines and soft drum rolls. The track leaves its listener with the haunting repetition of Ferg muttering about “All these voices in my head.”
This album seems to have taken a darker path than previous SBTRKT projects. The single “Higher” featuring new Atlanta artist Raury describes the struggles of growing up without a father. He also includes references to riding on the MARTA and walking around Decatur – imagery to which Emory students might well relate. His harsh tone and quick wordplay matched with a fast kick and snare pattern creates a serious mood that carries over throughout the album.
A similar mood expresses itself within the much-anticipated single “New Dorp. New York,” in which Koenig of Vampire Weekend chants and sings dark abstract imagery such as “gargoyles gargling oil” over a wonky bass line and a steady Cabasa rhythm to give it the feel of a mysterious funk song.
Much like Ferg, Koenig is pushed outside his normal indie rock repertoire to match the creative mind of Aaron Jerome. This emphasis on both creativity and using artists in innovative ways is the primary reason why this album flourishes and is so unique.
The album that is Wonder Where We Land may not be defined by genre, for there is no central unifier of rhythm, instrument use or song structure. Jerome manages to gather voices of all musical backgrounds to create truly avant-garde concepts. He successfully begets a series of emotions and moods through inventive uses of sound. SBTRKT creates a fresh sound with Wonder Where We Land, and this freshness is nowadays a rarity.
SBTRKT was scheduled to perform in Atlanta on the first stop of his North American tour on Oct. 7 but was forced to reschedule due to personal illness. I would highly suggest attending his upcoming concert when he reschedules – it’s a safe bet that we will be watching SBTRKT pioneer the music industry for years to come.
– By Josh Lehman, Contributing Writer