We reference the early stars of techno so often we forget many of them are still active and relevant. Ultramarine is one of these acts, known for their pastoral tone and patiently unfolding pieces. Active since 1989, the duo has never taken more than a brief hiatus, the last of which was broken five years ago with the Blackwaterside project. The special package included a 7″ single, a book of photos and poetry, and the score to the accompanying film, screened at the Caught by the River Thames Festival. This music is made available again on the bonus CD of Send and Return.
After writing about the Blackwater Estuary, the duo decided to go a step further in making this an ongoing project. Send and Return was recorded below deck in the wooden saloon of a Thames sailing barge. The title references transport and trade, while the tracks are named after other local barges. Greg Heath (soprano sax, alto flute) and Ric Elsworth (vibraphone, percussion) add distinct flavors to the mix, nudging the Ultramarine sound into new territories, as befits their name.
“Mirosa” starts the album in a pure electronic tone, a steady beat accompanied by soothing keys. Like many of Ultramarine’s best compositions, it contains a tinge of trance. The most melodic passage arrives well into the piece, at 5:10; if we’re fortunate, a remix may bring this to the fore. The shift to ambient jazz begins in “Xylonite,” as Heath is brought to the foreground ~ nary a beat to be found, merely a soft clicking toward the end. While “Reminder” also falls into this category, “Decima” and “Hydrogen” highlight vibraphone and live drums, the latter adding programmed percussion. One imagines a steady sail down the Estuary from London to Essex, the musicians below deck, the upper deck divided into dance floor and chill-out room, drinks in the middle.
Like “Mirosa,” “Hydrogen” saves its sweetest turn for the end. A bright, chimed section appears at 4:22, but lasts only a minute. “Dawn” combines the aforementioned influences, starting with sax and developing beats at the two-thirds mark: the album in a microcosm, with a trajectory toward light. Our only caveat: this may be perfect music for a sail, but Ultramarine deserves to be above deck; a remix package (Blackwater’s Daughter?) will get this into clubs and remind dancers of the difference between retro and real. (Richard Allen)