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Baths - Romaplasm (Album Review)

Wednesday, 29 November 2017 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Photo: Mario Luna

The wonderful thing about pop music is that there’s no one way to do it. It’s obvious on the first listen of ‘Romaplasm’, the third album from American songwriter Will ‘Baths’ Wiesenfeld, that pop was a principal element of his musical education. It’s written in his vocal patterns, his use of call and response, and his sublime choruses.

And yet, on paper, there’s much about Baths that could be construed as inaccessible. Tracks are arranged haphazardly with various whirling synths and frequencies constantly jostling for attention – think Jonsi or the Postal Service if they listened to more glitchy techno. At times, his music can feel breathless and overwhelming, perhaps even verging on overkill.

Your response to the album’s lead single, Yeoman, will likely determine how you feel about the whole thing.

Its breezy bassline is about the only thing that anchors it, with snappy keyboard phrases darting in and out and Baths’ voice jumping octaves. It should feel unsettling, but there’s something soothing about the conflict.

Unlike ‘Obsidian’, his last effort, there’s also a sumptuous quality to both Baths’ words and his use of arrangements. But there are also few moments to slow down and reflect, which may grate with fans previously drawn to his subtle and minimalist songwriting.

Tracks like I Form and Extrasolar are embellished with cascading strings and dripping piano motifs, contrasting beautifully with the frantic beats alongside them. This is the greatest strength of ‘Romaplasm’: the motorised rhythms and glitchy synths mean it should sound mechanical and dispassionate, and yet most of the album feels ethereal and atmospheric. It’s a trick that’s difficult to get right, but one Baths gets away with due to the animated and colourful soundscapes he conjures.

There are a couple of exceptions. Lev is a drab mid-album stopgap that fixates on one uninspiring melody and doesn’t really go anywhere with it. Wilt could also have been dropped – despite starting promisingly with a stirring piano loop, it gets a little lost in its maze-like structure.

Also, the pitter-patter percussion on cuts like Abscond and Adam’s Copies are creative and fit the video game-esque electronics a little bit, but Baths does tend to race from 0 to 100 without respite. This slightly holds the album back as the only shifts in gear are the interlude-style tracks, and they simply lack the urgency of those that surround them.

A greater sense of space and use of dynamics would have tempered what is a vivacious headrush of a record. It’s ostentatious in a geeky kind of way, with myriad comic book and anime references that will only be picked up by more ardent listeners. It’s not all rainbows and dragons, though, at least not literally. On Human Bog, he opens up on being a gay artist by addressing the listener as “queer in a way that works for you”.

For the most part, though, Baths’ insecurities and vulnerabilities tend to be muffled by the sheer onslaught of musical phrases and otherworldly concepts he throws at the listener. That can feel a little kitschy, but it’s at least delivered with the passion and enthusiasm that only the best pop artists can command.

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