As something of a twist to this trans-Atlantic tale, Ummagma released two ‘debuts’ on the same day. The second, self-titled, album, is more upbeat – even more experimental in its soundscapes, focussing heavily on the ambient sound hinted at on the guitar driven Antigravity – and an equally worthy release, but for the purposes of this review I’m going to concentrate on the latter.
Dreamy guitars wash over the introduction to Ummagma’s Antigravity. It’s a fitting name as the album carries through it a leitmotif of floating, of being disengaged – which, given vocalist Shauna McLarnon’s relocation from Canada to Ukraine, is perhaps unsurprising. “Funny how I fly, in the thick of the rules, in the thick, does nothing but bind me” sings McLarnon on opening track ‘Lama’, setting the band’s stall out from the offset. Musically it also does this with a captivating, driving momentum that fully immerses the listener.
Alexx Kretov takes over vocal duties on the acoustic driven ‘Micro Macro’ which half way through delivers a punchy electronic beat that shouldn’t find harmony with the guitar – but does. It’s the first real signal that this is dreampop with an eye on what can be achieved by experimenting with electronica.
‘Back To You’ drops into more of a shoegazing sound, with vocals fuzzed up and mixed at the same level as the instruments – the main differentials is a Spanish guitar part that emerges in places and adds additional depth to the track – imagine Rodrigo y Gabriela jamming over a Mazzy Star track and you begin to get the picture.
If there’s a fault in the album, it’s the varying styles. Just as you relax into one track, the pitch or tempo or focus shifts and the spell is broken – albeit temporarily. It’s a strength too though; each track has so much going on it offers a sort of topography – depending on the environment in which you’re listening you can take different things from the track – from the electronic intermissions, to focussing on the lyrics, or the more ambient structure to many of the 12 tracks contained in this album.
‘Live and Let Die’ isn’t a cover of the McCartney track (as interesting as that would have been). Instead it sums up the band’s multi-layered, atmospheric marker. Vocals are thick and distant – with the rhythm and guitar parts more in the fore. The album’s highlight is ‘Photographer’, an otherworldly piece of music that distorts in waves around that returning acoustic guitar.
By picking parts of a number of bands – there are elements of MBV, Mazzy Star, Cocteau Twins, even early 80s Bowie – Ummagma have found a sound that is truly their own and it demands repeated listening, preferably late in the day, just as your eyes are beginning to close over.