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Maps - Vicissitude (Album Review)

Wednesday, 26 June 2013 Written by Graeme Marsh

Maps - Northampton’s James Chapman - first appeared on the music scene in 2007, when Mute Records released his debut album ‘We Can Create’. The record subsequently garnered much critical praise and a Mercury Music Prize nomination.

With its roots firmly embedded in the shoegaze movement of the 1990s, the album was nothing short of a revelation. Stories quickly circulated that Chapman had written, recorded and self-produced the material in the confines of his bedroom on a 16-track recorder, entirely unassisted.

His second effort, ‘Turning The Mind’, was another lo-fi affair but this time Chapman abandoned guitars for electronics.  The result was another success, with songs built around two specific themes – ‘chemicals’ and ‘mental state’.

Mixing duties for bands such as Esben And The Witch have followed – along with remixes of his own work – and ‘Vicissitude’ was recorded in tandem with these other projects. On it, Chapman continues the thematic approach to songwriting, with ‘change’ and ‘hope’ the new focus.  

With personal reflection driving the writing process, Chapman found himself “digging deep and confronting reality head on”. He has, somewhat inevitably, produced his most personal record to date as a result.

The electronica of Depeche Mode is recalled during the opening bars of lead single and album opener A.M.A., but the dark territory that Dave Gahan’s influential group occupy is only hinted at as the synths create a blissful atmosphere. Chapman blindly sings: “I’ve been staring into the sun”. Every listen unlocks something new as the multitude of electronic layers reveal themselves to the discerning ear.

Built To Last could be a dancefloor filler, with its up-tempo beat and swirling vocal mix, while You Will Find A Way begins with a simple three note ascending sequence, leading the way into a spacey, atmospheric cathedral of sound.

The slower beat of I Heard Them Say is darker, with its foreboding synth bass notes, and a welcome glimpse of a guitar is even heard, albeit fleetingly.  The vocals float on top of a soaring melody to create another sublime listening experience – a song that cries out for an instant replay through headphones in a blacked out room.

Kraftwerk are referenced during the first moments of Nicholas, but the track is very subdued and some dreary repetition does little to warrant its place at this point on the album. If anything, it is a closer to fade out on as it picks up towards its finale but ultimately suffers from its earlier tedium. The title track follows and nods to the difficult times that people will undoubtedly go through at various points in life, reflecting the inner explorations Chapman experienced while creating this work. It’s a lacklustre track though, rendering the mid section of the album its weakest point.

Giorgio Moroder-influenced synths sparkle during Left Behind as the album gets back on track in more blissful fashion. This Summer then intertwines a distinctive melody with bubbly keys to recall Ladytron’s Destroy Everything You Touch.

Insignificant Others meanders along casually until it reaches a sparsely populated break.  A repeated vocal, “it’s so insignificant to me”, then paves the way to another cinematic climax.  Final track Adjusted To The Darkness sounds like a crackly old vinyl moment of reflection, with Chapman’s fragile voice barely above a whisper. Atmospheric keyboards resembling a church organ adorn a short mid section, all the while accompanied by minimal percussion and ghostly wailings.

Chapman has managed to create something other-wordly and brilliant once again – how he does this with such limited means is anyone's guess. ‘Vicissitude’, although at times inconsistent, proudly takes its place alongside his other work. His music seems destined not to cross over though, which is disappointing because beauty like this deserves to be heard the world over.

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