“Without wasted air/Without wasted air” chants Xenoula aka Romy Xeno before slipping into some form of Afrikaans, the sound of surveying the unsettling beauty of the world’s landscapes and becoming horrified at the pollution that infects nature’s most wondrous habitats. These are the static clouds of popping, heavy bass beats, elemental synths and imaginative creeping percussive atmosphere of opener ‘Chief of Tin’ – Clambering from her shell thus curious and just slightly unsettling but also utterly entrancing. It’s a song that acts as an allegory of her ‘affinity with flora and fauna rather than with man and machines’ and an uncomfortable rebirth into a damaged modern world.
The opening part of a beguiling and exotic album whose bricolage of sounds and melodic fragments juxtapose the modernity of synthesizers and samples with unusual instrumentation and found sounds, encapsulating the disorientating feeling of experiencing the urban sprawl for the first time. Somehow vaguely reminiscent of the machine meets nature of Bjork albums like Homogenic and Vespertine but yet totally individual, taking in references to funk, avant sounds, French pop, electronica and African rhythms it stretches the confines of pop music venturing uncharted aspects of nature, environmental pollution, and the awakening of sexuality and self-discovery with both trepidation of painful past memories and playfulness transporting you to another world, another place another time, sometimes it sounds incredible.
Moving to the UK at the age of 16, Weird World signing Xenoula experienced this disorientating culture shock as she struggled to take in the sights and sounds of sprawling, bustling European cities. Little wonder since she spent her formative years in South Africa where she was brought up around the elemental songs of nearby villagers and the rhythms of nature. Recently retreating to the quieter climes of north Wales. Romy has forged the sounds of her beguiling and unusual debut long player under the guise of Xenoula.Teaming up with producer Sam Dust aka LA Priest whose recent work includes his own debut solo album as well as Connan Mockasin collaboration Soft Hair, together they craft a tapestry of sounds from xylophones and synths pads, to samples and earth-shaking basselines they have scoured the globe for found sounds and paired them to Xenoula’s curiosity for melody and poetic couplets: never over produced but layered enough to find something new with each listen, it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of production I’ve heard this year.
Down every path there’s a new palette of pop to explore, to delight and intrigue the ears: the bounding midnight dance of ‘Luna Man’ clambering from the dusk out of the sea and up to the top of mountains, with bubbling Daft Punk-like blips and dexterous keyboards that dance upon the tips of moon rays are tied to a delightful hushed melody that gathers into a joyous chorus that sings for escape, is part Grace Jones artfulness and part the attitude redolent of the work of MØ, it’s special, very special and the video is like a scene from Blade Runner 2049 following the apocalypse. The twitching trip-hop beats, dextrous basslines and reverb dappled vocals of ‘Cyan Water’ observe the landscapes unusual and unexpected moments of beauty with the pinshot clarity of chanted refrains and layered vocals. It’s matched by the mystical cautionary tale of ‘Honey Priest’ that’s melody scuttles across fractured ground.
Bristling with a sexuality the sun-dappled basslines of ‘Caramello’ are infectious and enticing and almost like a slow down version of the synth line on MGMT‘s ‘Electric Feel’, its groove paints in dainty French pop and Detroit funk, sensuous and catchy it’s the delicious soundtrack to a rendezvous, there’s a feminity present here but it’s mysterious, not existing for the gaze of a man, but confounding norms, exploring, shapeshifting to its environment. The unsettling percussive ripples of ‘She Ghosts’ with its ghostly vocals and visitation of the spirits to a small village ushers in the albums second more unsettling second half, both ethereal and majestic its redolent of Madonna‘s Bedtime Stories era if it was possessed by haunted happenings. ‘Fly up in the high hole through the wind/ go fly up oh to the eye’ through’ sings Xenoula delicately on the exotic ‘Alauda‘, that’s insidious percussive straddles are slithered through by Xenoula’s half chanted half fractured refrains that sketches out the soaring path of birds, it’s gorgeously redolent of the work of latter Lykki Li only with a twist. Alauda are a genus of larks found across much of Europe, Asia and in the mountains of North Africa, and one of the species (the Raso lark) endemic to the islet of Raso in the Cape. The ominous descending Spanish guitars that sound like raindrops echoing in a cavernous cave, evocative lyrics that tumble with astraphobia are backed by squelching beats and spiralling manipulated synth parts and tropical beats of ‘Leyline Ogres’ sound like the gathering radio static just before a downpour it possesses a minimalistic charm that gathers in its final few minutes emerging into a dappling synth part that is one of the records musical highpoints.
With its playful production Xenpula’s debut long player is stretching pop to its outer reaches, Xenoula has crafted an exotic chameleon sound both otherworldly yet rooted in global cultures it transforms and reassembles with every step, it charts Xenoula’s journies across global landscapes what are her first artistic glimpses of the sprawling natural and urban expanses, in an increasingly disorientating world each song possesses a disarming sonic adventurousness: it sounds unique, one of the most unique pop records you’ll hear this year.