Album Review: N/UM – Ravens

Bringing together analogue synths, guitars, voice and other instrumentations to create entirely improvised pieces of electronic music both live and on record, American trio N/UM are something of an oddity in dance music culture, despite the sheen of their music coming across as pretty accessible. In their own words, N/UM (pronounced ‘Noom’) are ‘bringing the unique immediacy and spontaneity of pure, free improvisation to places where it is rarely heard: festivals, nightclubs and underground warehouse-parties’. Whatever the rationale, it really works.

Though it clocks in at under 30mins, Ravens packs in a lot of slick grooves and cool musical ideas. ‘All my friends are ravens’, repeats the vocal line in the opening, title track, as if to make clear that this isn’t going to be a wholly straightforward house or techno record. Caribou-like wordless vocal snippets wave back and forth across the stereo field, whilst a jazzy guitar loop holds court over a very polished club beat. The repetition is clearly made for the dancefloor, but there’s more than enough atmospheric embellishments and buried synth subtleties to retain the interest of a casual listener too, and that’s true of the whole release.

The excellently titled ‘Joyfarm’ has a more 90s vibe to its beat, with a satisfyingly simple bassline burrowing deep into your brain. A growling synth is trying to escape from its harshly enveloped prison right from the start, never quite managing to take over, and everything stays fairly subdued, though still outrageously danceable.

The title of track three perfectly encapsulates how you’ll be feeling about Ravens by this stage: ‘Preach to the Choir’. If you’re not fully convinced and bopping in your chair by now then maybe you’re allergic to Kool-Aid. Little swells of melody hint at what could easily be an all-out synthpop banger, but as is becoming tradition, N/UM keep their cool, the minimal beat softly augmented by otherworldly guitar effects.

Additional percussion adds a fun layer to the final track, which sticks to a recognisable template of simple bass tone over a shiny beat – this time perhaps more focused on the heavy kick – with vocal and instrumental elements coming and going in both the foreground and the background. The best drop on the album is found here, and it shows off the great skill that the trio have in only very subtly varying an idea to add an entirely new and vastly improved take on it

On the surface it might seem like there’s not anything particularly new or outstanding about the sound of this record. However, it doesn’t take long before you find yourself inexplicably loving it and going back to find all the intricacies that are pulling you in from beneath the surface. Perhaps free improv is something that should be more commonplace in dance music that is still wedded to its 4/4 beat. Or, perhaps N/UM just really know their stuff.

Richard Spencer

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