3 weeks ago
Sometimes it is our pleasure to say: This is a beautiful album.
This is an album that will fill you with honey and fill you with bees. This is an album that makes you feel like you’re getting electro-stimulation while inhaling oxygen under the cool, wild star-fire of a planetarium dome.
This is one of my favorite albums of the year.
The album is called Sleepless, and it is by a group from Brighton, England called Immersion.
You will love Sleepless if you have ears. You will love Sleepless if you have ever imagined that music is something whispered to you inside a cathedral. You will love Sleepless if you are seeking a soundtrack to accompany a ride on a waterslide under the aurora borealis.
Colin Newman, one-half of Immersion: “It’s in the name. It does what it says in the name. Immersion!”
Listen to Sleepless. Where might it take you? Ah, it is a night inside an opium dream of Bowie’s Berlin. Blue, heatless streetlights reflect off of the rattling, groaning S-Bahn. You are walking in a dark part of the city, broken glass crunches underfoot. Suddenly you are aware that even this shattered street, this smashed urban flatland, was carved by glaciers! Sleepless is where nature and technology, the incomprehensible loop of eternity and the cloister of the recording studio, meet.
Immersion’s Backstory is fascinating, but not necessary. The British Isles are very far north, y’see – so much further north than you might suspect – and Brighton is on the same latitude as brittle Kiev or stony Newfoundland. During June and July in Brighton, you can look at the late-evening sky – say, at about 10:48 at night – and still see a pinch of pink and a spray of orange high in the ashy opal clouds. If Sleepless had emerged, with no history whatsoever, from that hole in that sapphire-blue solstice-night sky, well, that would be just fine. Sleepless would still be a near-perfect late night pearl of a record.
But there is a backstory. Immersion is Malka Spigel and Colin Newman. They have been married for 32 years. That’s enough of a backstory, isn’t it? But there’s more: Malka was the was a co-leader of the much regarded Israeli/Belgian Post-Punk act Minimal Compact (who combined Leeds agitation with 4AD dreaminess, to wonderful effect); and Newman, well, for 41 years Colin Newman has been a vocalist, guitarist, and key architect in Wire. Yes, Wire. And I have come to believe that Wire must be seen, alongside the Beatles and Kraftwerk, as one of the most consistent, artful, and, well, perfect artists of the entire rock era.
Newman: “First of all, we’re a couple, so the normal ego stuff that happens with groups doesn’t happen between us. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t fight, but we don’t have to be clever with each other, not ever, about anything …” “Or fight for our own space as musicians,” Malka adds (Spigel and Newman really do finish each other’s sentences, it’s kind of adorable). “We can just be. And that creates Immersion.”
Sleepless is the fourth album Immersion have released since the mid-1990s. Although they have done wonderful work in the past (especially 2016’s Analogue Creatures Living on an Island), with Sleepless, Immersion have finally made a record that fully stands on its own, with no need of a backstory. In fact, Sleepless sounds very little like Wire; Wire’s brilliant rules of urgency, text, and structure do not apply here, and the tracks on Sleepless unwind like bulletins streaming out of a printer on a continuous roll of velvet, or like a dream diary inscribed on a Moebius Strip made of silk. Sleepless has none of the “feel” of a side-project. It feels like the work of a startling new act.
“Yes, it’s kind of the sound of us just being,” states Newman. “I know that sounds pathetically simple, as a concept, but there’s no earthly reason, apart from the artistic venture, to do Immersion. I have something of a successful career. When Minimal Compact tour in full-flight, that is a popular item. We are both well recognized. We do Immersion because it is an expression of us, really.”
Spigel: “It is the ultimate freedom as a musician because it can just do what feels right, rather than think about it too much.”
I have little hesitation in stating that Sleepless, this lovely, shimmering, head-nodding arpeggio-inhale/Buddha-outbreath of an album, is easily the best Krautrock-esque album in decades. Sleepless has the grace, gravity, and atoms-in motion mesa-scape of Krautrock at its most enchanting and unaffected. It also possesses that odd mixture of defiance and ease that we find in so much classic A-list Krautrock.
“The Apache Beat is ubiquitous,” Newman says, referring to the thumping, mesmeric rhythm that traditionally powers Krautrock. “It is just everywhere.”
Spigel: “But it merges quite naturally, actually, with Immersion.”
Sleepless contains melodies within melodies, melodies within dreams, melodies within drones, melodies within the ancient heartbeat tic of motorik; but please note:
Despite the lovely elegance of the music, this is most certainly not an “ambient” record. Sleepless engages you. It demands that you stay alert: It brings you down dark hallways with mirrors that glow green with luminescence, it drives you on the narrowest of bridges over beautiful waters.
Have I mentioned that Sleepless is an entirely instrumental record? I don’t think I have, and I suppose that’s because the listener is likely to be so swept up in the texture, mood, and emotions that unfold over the course of the album (humor to darkness to elegy to elation to relaxation to tension) that they’ll never really miss the absence of a vocal presence. The band, and the sound of Sleepless itself, has such a strong personality that the listener cannot help but feel that they are being spoken to, even if there are no words.
There is, however, a strange constant – a whistling, humming, sometimes arrhythmic tone, like the wind coming through the window on a night full of anticipation.
“Yes, that’s the MS-10!” says Newman, excitedly. “The Korg MS-10 is the lead vocalist. It has a level of randomness – very often the loop isn’t in time with anything else, but since it’s not a hard, percussive sound, it doesn’t really matter. The loop will turn against the rest of the music and it creates a very nice tension, it stops things from being too straight.”
“And it’s got this peculiar voice,” adds Spigel. “It’s almost very analog, like a creature.”
This past weekend, Immersion began an American tour, their first true tour in the group’s nearly 25-year existence.
Newman: “It’s mental. It just came about because we obtained the three-year visas, so I said to our agent, if we are ever going to do it, 2018 is the year to do it. I think it’s exciting. Because we are the artist and the label, and because there is no money to be made for Immersion to tour America, we can have an attitude where we just say, okay, we will be doing this, this is what we are going to be doing. It’s a completely different way of thinking to Wire.”
Spigel: “It’s like a new band. We are happy to be a new band.”