Music Reviews

Balam Acab Wander/Wonder

(Tri-Angle) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

Wander/Wonder, the debut full-length (well, just about - it's only half an hour long) from Balam Acab, AKA 20 year old New Yorker Alec Koone, is a very perplexing experience. While still demonstrating the imaginative, immaculate production skills that brought him a fair amount of attention last year, and a gig soundtracking a L'Oreal ad starring Beyoncé (surely 2010's weirdest musical collaboration), it's also a record that lurches between the sublime and the ridiculous with dizzyingly regularity, or as dizzying as something so deliberately low-key can be.

Even when he first emerged on the blogosphere, Balam Acab seemed like a bit of a wild-card. Instantly lumped in with the brief-lived witch house craze, Koone may have shared a few characteristics with that rag-tag bunch - the ridiculous name, the slow-pace and sense of atmosphere, the links to the Tri-Angle records label – but the match never seemed a particularly comfortable one as Balam Acab was never gloomy enough for that. And while Wander/Wonder may initially seem dark and impenetrable, so echoey and water-fixated that it sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a well, it doesn't stay that way for long. As soon as the first high pitched vocal, sounding like a chipmunk singing a lullaby comes in, any feelings of ominousness are instantly dispelled. Probably a wise decision on Koone's part as, judging by the very mixed fortunes of the rest of the witch house lot (oOoOO and How To Dress Well may have produced some fine records, also on the Tri-Angle label, but Salem's was a bit of a stinker and the less said about their live performances the better, and the rest of them seem to have faded from view entirely), it would be wise of him to assert his differences. Or is it the case that, with the corpses of most past music scenes having already been dug up and resurrected, the only relatively unexploited option Koone had was to combine new age music with the sped-up vocals of novelty rave records (or, given Koone's youth and the internet meme based nature of witch-house, the Nyan Cat video)?

Ultimately it probably doesn't really matter how credible or daft a record is, as long as it manages to hold the interest, and this is where Wander/Wonder's real flaws show. Simply put, it's far too repetitive, especially considering its short length, and even on repeated listens tracks seem impossible to tell apart – particularly, after the strong opening provided by Welcome, the run of Apart, Motion and Expect all sound pretty much the same, or when the umpteenth sample of dripping water comes on and you're desperately trying to fight the urge to go for a piss. Arguably, this was Koon's intention as he was aiming for the record having a consistent mood, but the question that arises is if he was in fact just running short on ideas and so resorted to reworking and refining the same one (it should be said that Expect, the last track in the aforementioned run, with its music box tone and thick chunks of bass is quite exceptional). Unsurprisingly, as the vocals always remain at roughly the same pitch, they get old quite quickly too.

Obvious shortcomings aside, Wander/Wonder still has much to recommend it. Couple Koone's sophisticated, depth-filled production skills with his ability to conjure up some staggeringly beautiful moments – the see-sawing strings of Welcome, the sing-song melody of Oh, Why, the crunching beats and distant moans of Fragile Hope - point to him being capable of delivering something genuinely incredible. It's just a shame that Wander/Wonder isn't quite it.