‘Varmints’ relieves mid-semester humdrum
Adam Ramos | Tuesday, March 22, 2016
I have had over a week now to settle in, my spring break and midterms are officially over and the monotony of routine has found its place again somewhere between my morning and afternoon cups of coffee.
Don’t get me wrong, I like structure and as my computer’s calendar begins to saturate with color-coded meetings and activities, I can admit to feeling a satisfying sense of order. Yet, while my complacency with the mundane is something I practice with pride, it is also the reason I find Anna Meredith’s assault-on-the-senses debut album so thrilling. With its chaotic bouncing from classical to electronic with the rigor of and fervency of Mike Brey’s post-basket clapping hands, “Varmints” is a welcomed reprieve to the mid-semester humdrum.
Meredith is no stranger to breaking the norm. Everything about the Scottish-born producer and composer’s career screams eccentricity; Meredith has had prolific work composing with the BBC, provided the music for an entire opera and toured with the likes of James Blake as well as The New Puritans. In “Varmints,” the 37-year-old pulls divine inspiration from this batch of diverse musical experiences, creating 2016’s most sonically-gripping album.
Opening track “Nautilus” pleasantly welcomes the listener with a beautifully vivid horn arrangement before an imposing brass crescendo builds behind ominous synths and mottled reverbs. The transition is almost scary, evoking daunting childhood fears like that of an evil Disney villain. “Nautilus” unabashedly pronounces the vastness of Meredith’s “Varmints” and what follows builds in every direction, all while maintaining the same ambition as the opening track.
For the many readers not well versed in Meredith’s classical/experimental/electronic genre, the pop tracks may be an instant draw. “Taken,” a starkly contrasting follow-up to the intriguing “Nautilus,” is a splendidly uplifting ditty featuring glittery synths, harmonized male/female vocals and a chorus to rival even that of the most pronounced pop tracks. Poppy vocals also shine on the album’s fourth track “Something Helpful” as airy falsettos dance to shimmering bells and bouncing synths. But the pop is only the draw. As the album progresses, Meredith presents provoking soundscapes, combining a myriad elements that shock just as much as they please.
Combining her pop sensibility, avant-garde approach and mastery of percussion arrangements, Meredith shows her true artistic merit. Such mastery is evident in tracks “R-Type” and “Shill,” which frantically establish by means of artillery fire drum loops and searing guitar progressions. And as much as I appreciate the jittery wake-up these two tracks provide, it is in “Scrimshaw” where everything seems to come together just right. The song’s juxtaposition of a rapid synth backbone and melancholy violin is surreal, and as the track builds with increasing anticipation, nothing seems rushed. Finally, at around 3:30, an explosion sends off to euphoria.
While it’s true that Meredith is an expert in exhilaration, it is in the softer moments of “Varmints” that demonstrate her range as a composer. One such moment comes in “Honeyed Words,” a slow, sci-fi ambient track, which provides just enough time to reflect on Varmint’s wild ride up to that point. Meredith also sends her listener off on a similar note with the somber “Blackfriars,” a final breather and conclusion to the chaos it follows.
Monotony is just a part of life, but that doesn’t mean you have to get so Prufrock about it. Spontaneity and excitement are everywhere, you just have to keep your eyes — and in “Varmints” case, ears — open.