It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Ultraísta — eight years, to be exact, since they put out their self-titled debut. Their follow-up may have taken a while, but Sister doesn’t disappoint: it’s a beautifully produced slice of intricate, alternative electronica from Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Atoms for Peace‘s Joey Waronker, and Laura Bettinson, whose solo projects FEMME and Lau.ra have found success in the meantime. Out of improvised studio sessions, the trio have created a tightly-controlled record which feels like waking up from a sad dream.
Its opening single, Tin King, revisits their debut record’s technique of vocal layering, driven by frenetic pulses of synth, but never feels busy: each element has its place. Triple time in Harmony nods to alt-rock acts like alt-J and Yeasayer’s early days and sets the record’s feel of strange submersion with the hook ‘I don’t need people in my life.’ ‘Ordinary Boy’’s soulful vocals hark back to FEMME, though with an otherworldly sparseness compared to the latter’s bubblegum sixties pop.
Elsewhere, such as in ‘Bumblebees’, the band touch on more traditional songwriting, bringing vocals forward in the mix and adding string arrangements for a semi-acoustic feel. ‘Mariella’ is reminiscent of London Grammar in its haunting vocals, weaving in dynamic and sometimes dissonant synth to great effect.
This album’s emphasis is very much on production, rather than songwriting, and so those looking for narrative shape should go elsewhere – it’s more studio project than band record. However, there’s something fittingly unsettling about its precise, tense layers at a time when the world around us is itself so unsettling: there’s something about the tightness of this mix which veers between intimate and claustrophobic. The main downside to this production-focused approach is that Bettinson’s vocals seem intentionally lost in the mix: she’s a powerful vocalist, who is muted here both in melody and dynamic range.
It may only be March, but Sister already looks like one of the most accomplished indie records of 2020. If you’re looking for a record to go slowly mad to during self-isolation (and aren’t we all), look no further.
Sister is out now on Partisan.