Wait. Don’t tell me – you’re not that big into UK garage, because the repetitive, headache-inducing beats aren’t quite your cup of tea, yes? Understandable. However, whatever you may think of grime and that drum-centric culture, don’t turn your nose up at this Keysounds release too quickly – E.m.m.a isn’t your average grime producer. Influenced more by the grand themes from BBC Workshop, the twangy adventures in spaghetti westerns, and the colorful fairgrounds of Coney Island, this inventive engineer composes complex, Baroque synth melodies to glide on top of the usual urban beats. These may seem like odd bedfellows to you – but, on E.m.m.a’s first LP, Blue Gardens, she’s painted some very vivid, colorful landscapes with her eclectic pallet. If you’ve ever been impatient with beat-ridden electronica, this will not disappoint.
“Dream Phone VIP” demonstrates how E.m.m.a rolls: the stately squelching of the dual synth lines over the tripping beat peals forth like a furious (yet orderly) march through the club. In the breaks of humming bass, you can hear two parties staring each other down, preparing for the next round of civil warfare. “Cherry Favour” engages on a more intriguing journey, with its fleet of trickling melodies skirting around the aggressive beat. We find a moment of respite at “Marina”, where the beat is reduced to a skinny, snapping beat, and the melodies are granted room to stretch and flow in waves that are often serene, but still always vivacious.
Ah, but E.m.m.a reserves her most impressive numbers for last. “Green Light” – which, for some obscene reason, almost didn’t make the cut – is a manifesto of Baroque dignity, the sort of melody that evokes 8-bit castles, yet remains visceral and dark thanks to its thick, clickety beat and some swirling, almost siren-like synth touches. If you think that’s ingenious, however, wait ‘til you hear “Shoot The Curl”. Here, E.m.m.a ditches the regal air for a dose of electric surrealism – from the vast and surging synths to the undulating river of guitar, this tune never ceases to enthrall and amaze. From there, we drift to the distant “Mood Rings”, an icy miasma of distorted synths, and wash out on the stark and urgent “At Sea”. The latter tune boasts the most vibrant drum work on the album, from militant snare rolls to sinister crunches, and balances out the mostly ethereal LP quite nicely.
In addition to E.m.m.a’s original works, Blue Gardens also contains two collaborations – and, at first listen, these may seem to jar strikingly with the rest of the album. However, “Jahovia” is just as much E.m.m.a’s track as it is Rebel MC’s – alongside his reggae-informed flow, you can spot her distinctive melodies, seething and swirling around the raps. And, frankly, it’s quite brilliant. To my ears, though, “Nostrum” is even more amazing – on this one, Sully brings the beefed-up bass power, while E.m.m.a provides tropical accents, subtle fanfares, and shimmering synth lines.
Without a doubt, Blue Gardens is an exceptional piece of electronica. It’s a tricky feat, for an engineer of synths to stake out their own style without borrowing from the pop playbook – and yet, E.m.m.a has accomplished that. Her commanding melodies may not fill the dance floor, but they’re engaging, enriched with texture, and ultimately memorable. Imaginative, too – I’ve been transported to dusky shores, pixelated courtyards, and menacing alleyways, but this LP has the power to conjure any fantastic landscape that the listener desires. Trust me, folks – you must hear this album before you judge. Blue Gardens is out now on Keysound, and available at all respectable online record stores; you can also stream the whole sucker beforehand via Fact.