Imogen Heap


At the end of Everything In-Between - The Story Of Ellipse (2011), the DVD-V that narrates "the making of" her fine, acclaimed third album, Ellipse (2009), Imogen Heap solemnly promises that she won't make another album as energy-sapping and as time-consuming as Ellipse, ever again. And that's exactly what happened.

When seen inside that framework, her choice about the matter - by the way, she had already spoken along these lines in the course of several interviews which appeared at about the same time the album was released - didn't sound illogical. In fact, before recording her new album she had built her new studio - something which also entailed the complete renovation of the country home where the new studio was to be located. Then, recording and mixing sessions proved to be quite complex and exhausting - let's not forget that Imogen Heap produces and engineers her own sessions, with fine results, as proven by the Grammy© she won in the prestigious Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category.

Sure, here an outsider could say that you only build your new studio once, so... But things are not so simple.

As readers know, in the last few years a new way of thinking has spread in the music world - here the first name that comes to my mind is Bob Lefsetz, the US lawyer who occupies himself with problems regarding the sphere of entertainment - according to which "spending three years silently working on a new album - meanwhile your audience will forget you" - is suicidal; it's much better "to release a new track every three months, while at the same time conducting an intimate dialogue with your fans, who have to be involved as part of the process".

When it comes to this, Imogen Heap has nothing to learn, given the fact that she started a very active blog more than ten years ago, initiating a dialogue with her fans, who have been involved for a long time in her process of decision-making when it comes to her music and her albums.

But I have to admit that as soon as I heard about her decision to release a new track every three months I reached for salts. The reasons behind that decision were obvious: not to be "home alone" for such a long time, renouncing the world and its many fruitful opportunities. But such a decision incorporates a quite precise meaning at a time when an artist's income increasingly comes from sources that can be defined as being "external" to music, though of course they are ultimately based on it.

And so, when Imogen Heap announced her intention to release a new track every three months starting with March, 2011 I turned off my computer and started waiting for the release of her new physical album, sure to come. What happened? I started feeling like the park bench in her video, with the fallen leaves, the sun, and the snow to signal the passing of time.

Mind you, my "wait and hear" attitude was not based on a lack of appreciation when it comes to her work. In a nutshell, it's just that my way of dealing with music is of the "old fashioned" kind. And the very idea of spending my time sitting at my computer downloading a new track, or watching a vBlog, or voting on this or that part of somebody's work - for two years! - is not my idea of what "listening to music" means.

It was at this point that a devil who knows me quite well asked me this question: "So you would not have liked to listen to Tim Bogert recording his bass solo on Shotgun in real time, uh?". Well... But we both know that this is just a by-product of the Internet cornucopia when it comes to the past. And this ain't reality.

It was announced that Imogen Heap's new album, Sparks, was to appear at the end of 2013. Then I started receiving messages that all began "We're sorry to inform you that...".

So now I'm in a quite strange situation: I have to review a new album featuring old material, the most recent thing here having already been available for... two years, I think. But I see that the album went to #1 in the Billboard chart called Top Electronic Albums (whatever it means). It goes without saying that Sparks is available in different versions, the one in my possession being the "Spartan" edition: just one CD.

A brief summary of Imogen Heap's recent activities would exhaust me and my readers (she's somebody who works hard: personal trainer, jogging, boxing... and this is just the appetizer). Let's see... A new track every three months, a new video for each track, travels to China and India, a contract with Intel to make a Jogging App, a crowd-funding campaign to get the money to record the new album, meetings, soundtracks, a Kickstarter campaign to build a new controller in the guise of gloves (Mi.Mu gloves), and so on (recently, she announced her pregnancy, the child being due in November).

Let's sidetrack for a moment. Friends from California told me something I knew nothing about: that quite a few avant-garde musicians have little sympathy for Imogen Heap, since they find it annoying that she presents some aspects of her work as "groundbreaking", especially when it comes to her use of "looping" and "harmonizing" in real time, without even a single mention of those who came before her. The same being true of those new gloves acting as controllers - here I was told about Laetitia Sonami and her "Lady's Glove". (I had thought about the research Dutch lab STEIM, especially The Hands, the pioneering MIDI controller by Michel Waisvisz.) Having a look around I saw that Imogen Heap mentioned Elena (Elly) Jessop from MIT media lab and her controller called "the VAMP glove". In a way, this reminds me of the indignation addressed in the direction of Robert Fripp when he called his system "Frippertronics", making it appear - so it was said at the time - that he had invented something already used by countless musicians, from Terry Riley to Mauricio Kagel (or vice versa).

Back to the album. It goes without saying that the last thing one could expect is coherence - something which becomes even more apparent when Sparks is listened to side-by-side with Ellipse (a comparison I made for a different reason: my amplifier and loudspeakers are the same I had at the time Ellipse came out, but now I have a new CD player; so I decided to give the two albums a "level playing field"). Ellipse was the fruit of a compositional work that saw the piano acting as the "generating machine", vocals obviously being the main character. Featured musicians, and the elaborate "sound design" by Imogen Heap herself, completed a picture whose meaning wouldn't be too different when looked at on sheet music. Sparks immediately shows its composite nature. Funny to notice how different the "whole" appears: while Ellipse presents a stereo field that's quite "tall" and convergent towards the center, with a very clear sound hierarchy, Sparks offers a panorama that's "squashed" but spreading towards the sides, with different elements placed in an ever-changing relationship (maybe somebody will recall the change - "from "tall and centered" to "low and spreading to the sides" - occurring in two Joni Mitchell albums such as Wild Things Run Fast and Dog Eat Dog).

Let's have a look at those tracks.

You Know Where To Find Me. Opening track, it's a fine ballad featuring the piano that's bound to remind the listener of Imogen Heap's previous album. There's a fine "B"  section, and a fine bridge. A "choral" vocal performance. There's a nice long section at the end that fades out, with an Annie Lennox aroma.

Entanglement features a mid-tempo rhythm figure. There's an inventive combination synth-voice, with a fine timbral mix. Fine melodic development for many voices, a fine bridge, and an appropriate-sounding string intermezzo.

The Listening Chair is an ever-changing "chronology" with many themes and tons of vocals.

Cycle Song sounds quite "Bollywood": rhythms, a melodic figure that sounds happy and communicative. There's a "sampled" prayer, vocals, and (real) strings.

Telemiscommunications was co-composed with deadmou5. Rhythm, backing by piano, a "light-sounding" melody, choruses. Not bad at all, but it goes nowhere.

Lifeline has opening vocals, piano backing, assertive rhythm, and a nice melodic opening, the whole reminding me quite a bit of Eurythmics. Fine bridge, and a quite active bass part.

Neglected Space presents a "spoken" narration which is bound to remind one of Laurie Anderson. Effects, a fine ambience, mutable, in a way, symphonic.

Minds Without Fear is another "Bollywood" moment which I didn't like. Co-composed with duo Vishal-Shekhar. Male vocals, percussion. From my "western" point of view, it sounds ugly.

Me The Machine is a song that strangely features something in a Beatles/psychedelic vein in ¾ in a "futuristic"-sounding track - the story reminded me of a side of the movie Her - with a fine melodic development. There's an inventive bridge, also when it comes to the featured instrumentation.

Run Time is "almost dance". Very nasal-sounding bass, catchy chorus. Nice bridge. There's a "suspended" moment for strings, then the track accelerates. (It's the track linked to Intel and to the Jogging App.)

Climb To Sakteng features "celestial" voices, male vocals, piano, the whole sounding a lot like "film music", a bit ho-hum.

The Beast is said to be the oldest track featured on the album. Hypnotic, not too interesting, co-composed with Bobby Ray Simmons, it features strings.

Xisi She Knows features "sampled" voices and "counting", also a "Chinese rock group". Again, not too interesting to me.

Propeller Seeds is rich with "binaural" effects - here headphone listening is almost mandatory. Fine melodic development. Ambient noises, effects acting as a backdrop to the story. Again, a pinch of Annie Lennox. Very fine bridge. (Let's not forget that Imogen Heap is one of the few left who still cultivates this side of composing.)

Readers will have the last word, of course. For this writer Ellipse is still the best starting point for those who have never listened to Imogen Heap. Sparks is not a "lesser" album, but a very different beast. Here things have become complicated, and I think they will get even more so in the future. Up to now, our judgments have been related, one way or another, to the realm of aesthetics, with the "subjective" sphere acting as a "divide". But increasingly things such as "reactive music" or "generative music" point us in the general direction of a "highly sophisticated videogame music", a field where judgment pertains not to the "aesthetical" but to the "functional", even more so when it comes to a jogging app. Interesting times.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2014 | Sept. 28, 2014