Although there is no way that Agalma could be described as a ‘pop’ album, it does share one element with many of the current songs on the charts. Even the most disinterested watcher of the hit parade, the hot 100, whatever you wish to call it, will have observed the preponderance of ‘featuring’ in the artists’ names; music has clearly got a lot more social in the past few years with everybody guesting on each other’s records. This trend seems to have shifted into other, less expected, musical areas with two-thirds of the tracks on Drew McDowall’s latest album featuring guests.
A former member of Coil, McDowall presumably has a well-stocked book of contacts, given the names featured on Agalma; verily, the cream of the avant-garde crop. Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone guest on a track apiece with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe appearing on a couple which perhaps indicates the quality of collaboration we are dealing with here; there’s no clash of styles here, or need to dominate the partnership. The lead release off the album, “Agalma V” features organist Kali Malone, but her contribution is restrained, sitting under the busy arrangement until close to the end, alleviating the tension with some thoughtful, calming chords.
As if to emphasis the importance of collaboration on this album, the opening track “Agalma I (Folding)” is revisited later on in the album with guest vocals from Maralie Armstrong-Rial, who adds some subtle but important vocal touches to the arrangement. In fact, subtlety is the order of the day for these featured artists; there’s no grandstanding, just thoughtful contributions that improve the overall sound; it’s less the ‘featuring…’ role of, say, a Calvin Harris tune, than a member of an orchestra having their instrument foregrounded by the composer for a few bars.
It’s on “Agalma VII (Toyor El Janeh)”, that the input of collaborators is felt most keenly, with Saudi vocalist MSYLMA appearing alongside Egyptian producer Bashar Suleiman and Elvin Brandhi (aka Freya Edmondes of Yeah You). It’s the most unexpected combination on the album, and it is not obvious who is contributing what to the arrangement, although you can make a few educated guesses. The effect, though, is a diaphanous trip to who knows where, seemingly heading off in several directions at once but maintaining a musical unity.
When McDowall is left to his own devices on the closing “Abandoned Object” the sound gets a little cluttered and gnarly, so perhaps it’s for the best that he worked with such a variety of musicians on Agalma; it’s rare that an album with so many guests doesn’t splinter into multiple stand-alone tracks but benefits from being a whole work. Having long been a collaborator, with only a handful of solo projects in that time, it makes sense that Drew McDowall could work well in a musical partnership; on the evidence here, it’s the best for all parties. (Jeremy Bye)