by GREGORY PURVIS for THE RECORD STACHE
Ummagma’s beautifully arranged new mini-EP deconstructs a single song into lush, multilayered pieces that, taken together, tell a single story through its various remixes. The amazing power of this band is their ability to remain meaningful while exploring a diverse range of musical territory. Their overall sound influences not only mood, but a deeper, almost mythological part of the Self. The Canadian-Ukrainian duo weaves ethereal songs that triumph over simple constructions of tone and texture, providing stories that use sound to paint a sprawling canvas. Music that is much more than simply background noise or the ubiquitous pop music arrangements heard in public spaces, this is achingly beautiful, personal, relevant and real.
Ummagma has, within the last couple of years, become an important part of my personal soundtrack: music that is at once alive and alluring. Even while listening to songs without immediately recognizable lyrics, I often find myself using the moods conjured by the heady combinations of sound to create my own story. Recently, the duo released a new EP called Winter Tale, with remixes by dreampop pioneer A.R.Kane. Following 2015’s incredibly rich, vivacious Frequency EP, the new EP is stunning in its beauty and resonance. Its brevity is a wonder instead of a hindrance, thanks to the ability of A.R.Kane to translate the song from a dreamlike paean into something more immediate and equally breathtaking. The story, at least my own translation of this Winter Tale, speaks of the promise of warmth and an almost childlike joy in release after the cold, confining interior spaces of winter. What better tale to tell in January?
The original song is built around a dry, unadorned drum machine track that carries a sense of time (both rhythmically and descriptively) for this haunting, rapturous song. Crystalline swirls of synthesizer define the sonic landscape, with Shauna McLarnon’s layered voice as the wishful, wistful counterpoint. She reminds us of the point in every true winter tale: the promise of life; of warmth after a long cold, of love after a long absence. In the remixes, A.R.Kane provides a certain tonal abrasiveness -a distance from the original recording that is provided by the warm, analog sound of an overdriven guitar. The wash of distortion still manages to sound complimentary next to McLarnon’s voice and Alexx Kretov’s original composition.
The remixes remain distinct and sonically distanced from the original, but keep the overall flavor intact. The longest remix, the 69 Style mix, is approximately twice the length of the original song, at 6 minutes 55 seconds. It blends guitar and washes of controlled feedback with stripped-back vocals that sound more immediate than the layered, echo-washed ambience of the original. This remix, along with a shorter Radio Edit, uses a keyboard sound reminiscent of the one used in Won’t Get Fooled Again, the 1971 song by seminal rock band The Who. Interestingly, the aforementioned classic organ sound was created by feeding pulses of sound translated from human heartbeats, brain waves and astrological signs into a keyboard. Perhaps this is one of those strange coincidences, as Ummågma’s music carries a deeper, very emotional resonance.
The band’s previous EP, Frequency, is filled with emotional resonance as well. The songs speak of longing and a sense of distance: spaces where half-recalled memories might lie. The songs pull on that long filament attached to the heart that connects us with love, loss, even hope; it is powerful and pleasant, a low-voltage buzz that hurts sweetly. Both EP’s feature haunted, luminous vocals and thickly layered compositions thanks to the joint talents of Kretov and McLarnon. Both inform Ummagma’s songs with a vitality that plays well with the sweetly spectral quality of much of the music.
After a couple weeks listening to Winter Tale (along with the Frequency EP), I asked Shauna about her process as a writer, and the influences that have made a lasting impression on her as a lyricist.
AS A LYRICIST, DO YOU HAVE A CERTAIN PROCESS? DO YOU KEEP AND WORK FROM A JOURNAL, OR DO YOU WRITE MOSTLY DURING THE RECORDING PROCESS?
SMcL: “I never know when text is coming, and it comes rarely. I write it down on scrap paper, whatever is lying around, usually the back of some bill or invoice on A4 paper, lots of crossing stuff out, replacing words or full lines…but there is one thing that is special for me, for my process, though it doesn’t happen with every song. I record, or Alexx [Kretov] records, a gibberish version of the melody for the song we are working on, and then I find real words in that text and plot them down like stepping stones. And try to link those stones to one another based on a concept for the song. Sometimes those stones–words– change in the final version, but they helped me get to where I needed to be…they guided the song in the writing process. And this is the most unique thing I can share with anybody about my writing process.”
WAS THERE ONE BAND OR SONGWRITER WHO REALLY INFLUENCED YOU AS A YOUNG PERSON, SOMEONE WHO IS STILL IMPORTANT TO YOU TODAY?
SMcL: “David Sylvian ‘Songs from The Beehive’, [my] all-time favourite. I first heard him in 1991 thanks to roommates in the house I was living in my second year of university. He’s been a permanent fixture in my life (and now my husband’s) ever since.
For my husband [multi-instrumentalist Alexx Kretov], it was Pink Floyd. He discovered them in the late 80’s/early 90’s too, at the same time as Led Zeppelin, both of which were really ‘foreign’ for people in the Soviet Union. This inspired him to pick up a guitar…and never put it down, except to play some other instrument (and then come back to the guitar).”
Winter Tale and Frequency are both available now. A.R.Kane has new music expected in 2017.