Ensemble was once a duo, is often an actual “ensemble” consisting of several musicians, but is mostly the work of one man, an Olivier Alary. This isn’t such an unusual occurrence in electronic music—very few electro acts are actual groups, rarely more than a duo if anything. Yet when Ensemble made its debut with Sketch Proposals, Alary had a partner, vocalist Channelle Kimber, who provided an emotional foil to Alary’s abstract production. That was six years ago, however, and since then Kimber split. On Ensemble’s self-titled sophomore album, a cast of vocalists take her place, including Lou Barlow and Chan Marshall, thereby creating an album of many collaborations and not just the work of a duo.
Alary’s compositions are often just as obscure and as amorphous as they are melodic; they begin fluid, but soon crystallize into coherent and solid pieces. Like the best of electronic producers, Alary blurs the line between organic and electronic, avoiding the overtly mechanical, as well as steering clear of conventional arrangements. There are drums, courtesy of Mice Parade’s Adam Pierce, and Johannes Malfatti provides orchestration to these harmonic snowflakes, escalating the beauty in these songs beyond their humble structures.
“Summerstorm” begins the album as gorgeously as possible, gauzy waves of sound floating beneath Mileece and Alary’s harmonized vocals, building up a brilliant fog before the drums kick in, acoustic guitars begin strumming, and those clouds part just enough to let a ray of sunshine in. This is the stuff of vintage 4AD bands, or a less distorted My Bloody Valentine. “One kind two minds” is similarly hazy, yet skipping along slowly, and with much more static and white noise, which makes an odd contrast to Lou Barlow’s vocals.
“Disown, delete” has gotten a fair share of ink before the album’s release, primarily due to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall lending her vocals to the song, which is, indeed, an incredible track. Alary conjures up a subtle and haunting atmosphere around Marshall’s voice, acoustic and electronic sounds lining up alongside one another, rather than blending into a shapeless mass. Malfatti’s orchestration drives it home though, strings ebbing and flowing like summer tides, as Marshall’s singing becomes more intense as the song climaxes.
The lovely “All we leave behind” and the strummy, dramatic “Loose” are also noteworthy gems, and it’s no surprise that they’re made even more so by the addition of vocalists. Alary’s instrumental tracks on this second album are primarily brief, ambient exercises in space and minimalism, which isn’t to say that they’re bad, just far less memorable than the five tracks on which Alary finds a collaborator to add a voice to his emotional, graceful works. But taken as a whole, Ensemble flows magnificently, oddly making a case for the album over the single in a genre where the latter medium still reigns supreme.
Mice Parade – Bem Vinda Vontade
DNTEL – Life Is Full of Possibilities
Björk – Medulla
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.