By: Will Pinfold

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Released on May 13, 2016 via Prah Recordings

Oliver Coates is probably primarily known for his eclectic range of work as a cellist; experimental collaborations with Massive Attack and Micachu, classical work with the Britten Sinfonia and so forth, but in a way these credentials undersell his second album, Upstepping. Yes, he remains first and foremost a cellist, and the instrument is of course everywhere on this (not very mini) mini-album, but like Helen Money or Arthur Russell, Coates is more concerned with the instrument’s unexplored possibilities than with traditional virtuoso technique.

In fact, it’s only by coming to Upstepping with prior knowledge of the artist that it could it be considered a ‘cello album’ at all. The array of percussive, melodic and quirky noises Coates coaxes from his instrument is nothing short of astounding; played straight, sampled, distorted, compressed, there are whole songs like ‘Perfect Love’ which consist of nothing but cello, but which are barely recognisable as such. Partly this ambiguity of sound is due to the musical context; the album’s eight tracks are wide-ranging in style, but are mainly in the grey (but very interesting) area between experimental dance and avant-garde neoclassical music, with occasional forays into house and even the odd bit of drone.

Along the way there are some very peculiar byways; ‘Bambi’ is something like a light, playfully percussive and organic-sounding  Plastikman tune (if you can imagine such a thing) which is then obliterated by an ominous surge of noise, while the aforementioned ‘Perfect Love’ is kind of like the hard-edged but still dancey techno of Luke Slater’s Freek Funk. But just when Upstepping seems to be settling into its character as a series of unusual dance/techno experiments, Coates produces ‘Memorial To Hitchens’ and ‘The Irish Book of Death And Flying Ships’. The former is the album’s most conventionally played piece, but it’s also an incredibly powerful minimalist composition that is both stark and beautifully sonorous, while ‘The Irish Book…’ is  quirky and unnerving, beginning as a kind of mutated jig with distorted spoken word elements before ending with an ominous lingering drone.

If Upstepping was only a mind/ear-boggling range of sounds and textures created with a cello it would still be remarkable and interesting, but in fact for the most part, the album wears its experimentalism lightly. It’s a vibrant, somewhat jittery listen taken as a whole, but the tunes are addictive and even at its most outré (like the odd whale noises and chirrups of the closing track ‘Rise and Fall’), Upstepping remains an invigorating, rather than an impenetrable piece of work.

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