Proudly adorned with a redundant accent that is usually the domain of metal bands, Ümlaut presents an album named after the Portuguese explorer who is best known for being the first European to reach India by sea. It’s a very apt title for an album that draws together a world of sounds – from sitars to muezzin calls – into its fabric. Vasca da Gama is essentially an electronic album, with the occasional pulsating bassline and programmed percussion present on most tracks but composer Jeff Düngfelder has gone for a wide-screen approach with plenty of atmospheric samples and hooks from instruments both familiar and foreign.
The first half of the album results in a mash-up of influences that is like a travelogue – not for the distant lands themselves, but if you were to go walking through a large city from one district to another. Going past a community centre, say, you can hear the sounds of ‘home’ leaking out as pensioners watch a movie, but then you are caught off guard as a car drives past blasting out some freshly-downloaded beats.
Vasco da Gama isn’t wholly old-world-meets-new, as Ümlaut adapts the sounds of 90s ambient techno for the second half of the album – the sequence starting with “Strange Signal” would definitely interest fans of Global Communication, Richie Hawtin’s FUSE or The Black Dog’s output from back in the day. Samples of dialogue from American movies replace the sitars, the tempo winds down a touch and the atmosphere changes – it’s almost as if having enjoyed the first part of the album during the daylight and on the streets, we’ve now gone inside and put the TV on to a channel that shows old movies. I don’t like using the word ‘narrative’ or ‘journey’ but actually the sequence of tracks works; by “Among the Hours”, the beat almost slows to dead stop before picking up the pace – and the bass – again.
The penultimate track “The Second Parallel”, with its sampled space chatter, underlines the concept behind Vasco da Gama – a distance that took months to travel for that explorer and his crew now takes mere minutes, if you happen to be orbiting Earth in a space station. In that regard, the world has become smaller, and our cultures are overlapping now more than ever despite resistance in certain quarters. Ending on the positive “Four Oh Four”, Ümlaut’s album brings together different sounds, atmospheres and influences into a satisfying and coherent whole. In these uncertain times, this is one possible future. (Jeremy Bye)