Here’s a recently discovered aspect to record reviewing that didn’t trouble our forbears. If, back in the day, a writer penned a piece that didn’t chime exactly with the artist’s own opinion, one of the accusations would be that said reviewer hadn’t listened to the record and therefore was in no position to comment about it. Sometimes this suggestion would be in the shape of a friendly chat, or a missive to the letters page; other times it could escalate into a more violent ‘discussion’, where physical retribution would be meted out.
By way of contrast, thanks to an automatic feed I have set up, Gavin Miller is very much aware that I’ve been playing Somn, and has favourited one of my tweets saying as much. So that should allay any doubts that I’m not writing this without listening to his record, although he is no doubt further confused that one week saw plays for Somn beaten by spins of The Rutles’ “Cheese And Onions” – fourteen times in one week, apparently, and I have no recollection how that happened. For the record, my last.fm tally is in no way comprehensive; only what I listen to one device.
Anyway, all this talk of futuristic monitoring is by way of contrast to Miller’s album which, looking at the titles alone, suggests some sort of return to 70s prog rock, with one track “The Voynich Causeway” (itself harking back to an ancient manuscript) divided into three parts, and a further four tracks given bracketed ‘N’ numbers. Of course, the track titles are about as proggy as Miller gets; musically he sets his stall out as a rock / electronica hybrid, with the aforementioned “Voynich Causeway” being a microcosm of the overall sound – admittedly a microcosm that takes up over a third of the running time.
Keen-eyed readers may have noticed Miller’s recent works popping up in the Electronic Observations columns, as his recent work has been of a decidedly electronic hue – but on the “Voynich” triptych the synth tones of part one gradually morph into rock instrumentation, all piano chords, guitar and jazzy cymbal work by the third part. It’s a clever, subtle and thoughtful shift from one sound to another that doesn’t seem forced and provides a strong narrative progression to the music.
Clearly, Miller is very interesting in producing a work that has a narrative, for this is an album designed to be a record to be listened to from start to finish, and would not make sense idly stuck on shuffle mode. Whilst words such as ‘journey’ have taken on unpleasant reality-show hues nowadays, Somn is genuinely that – a record you spend time with, maybe with the headphones turned up and the lights dimmed, and digest in the order intended to fully appreciate it.
One of the tracks that doesn’t have an obvious titled link to the others, but sits in the centre of the running order, is arguably the strongest piece here and perhaps the only one that could exist outside Somn‘s world. “2182 khz” is mostly drums and guitars, and there is a palpable sense that Miller is shrugging off the electronic forms he’s been recently dealing in, to return to a (post-)rockier sound, one influenced by Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis. The other non-associated track “103rd Floor” is a fragile meditation on acoustic guitar with birdsong; it’s a moment of reflection before strapping ourselves in for the suitably epic scale of the closing numbers.
It’s hard to pinpoint what Somn actually is; an electronic album with some tracks utilising rock instrumentation, or a rock album that makes more use of electronic sounds than normal? Depending on your musical background, and from where you approach this album, it could be either. There are precedents for Somn; the closing “Somniloquy (N3i)” and “Circadian Rhythm (N3ii)”, far from suggesting sleep, could sit comfortably alongside tracks from Primal Scream’s rock/electronic meld on XTRMNTR.
What is clear, though, is that Somn is composed, arranged and sequenced to be a proper album, with a beginning, a centrepiece and an ending, and all the tracks interlocking like a sonic jigsaw. After a series of inventive 12” and split releases, this has the feel of being a more definitive, longer-lasting statement; Miller’s finest work to date, an astonishing tour de force that will continue to resonate with listeners long after the tweets and scrobbles have been forgotten. (Jeremy Bye)