The iconic Bristol-based electronic duo, KOAN Sound, are back with another EP, “Silk Wave.” This EP features their usual soft, tranquil melodies, along with powerful baselines and glitchy instrumentals — this time, with the addition of vocal elements.
The two producers behind KOAN Sound are Will Weeks and Jim Bastow, who met in secondary school and became friends after discovering their common passion for music. Since signing with OWSLA in 2011 and releasing their “Funk Blaster” EP, the duo has gained a dedicated following — many of whom laud their sound design as some of the best in the game. But mastery of sound design is not the only component of KOAN Sound’s repertoire that sets them apart.
As a consumer, it is easy to experience and evaluate music in terms of its relatability, and it’s completely understandable that humans, by nature, seek out that which mirrors our own perceptions, experiences and outlook. We can always look to sounds that fit the mood of the moment: triumphant, melancholy, angsty, love-struck or joyous. We cradle these songs as proof that we are not alone — that human experiences are universal. But arguably, what makes KOAN Sound’s work so attractive is its abject lack of relatability.
The British duo’s work may sound jarring, almost alien at first listen, like something that doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to our own reality. But in the world of electronic music, there seems to be a tacit agreement between producers and consumers that relatability doesn’t have to be the top priority — that there is just as much cathartic value in sounds that seem to hold no basis in our lived experiences.
The main goal is not to project the music onto our own lives, but to experience something else — the ability to imagine a reality outside of our own. KOAN Sound has achieved this effect mostly through purely instrumental music, with one notable exception in their 2013 “Sanctuary” EP. This may be why, perhaps, it was a surprise to fans that two of the four tracks featured in their latest EP, “Silk Wave,” contained vocalists.
Maybe this shift is not a big deal and merely part of the constant evolution and experimentation that the KOAN Sound duo seems to champion. However, KOAN Sound has a reputation and a signature sound to uphold, a sound that emphasizes intricate, almost painstakingly perfectionistic attention to every detail of sound design. Their signature lies in a precarious balance between the melodic and airy, delicate and round, glitchy and warped or sharp and abrupt.
Critics and fans alike have attempted to describe the sound through multiple genre classifications: glitch-hop,neurofunk, drum and bass and neuro-hop. What these classifications don’t capture is that the duo has created something that works outside of the confines of genre and yet somehow feels cohesive, a distinctly KOAN “Sound.”
The fans know generally what to expect of each new release. Something that sounds just different enough, just similar enough and something equally beautiful and probably more technically-advanced than the last release. But where do the new vocals featured on the “Silk Wave” EP fit into all of this? Is this new sound too different? Does it upset the balance?
The EP starts out with the dream-like song, “Silk Wave,” which echoes the duo’s earlier work, by merging glitch-hop and funk influences, heavy bass and an intermittent “liquid” drums effect. This track wouldn’t be out of place on the duo’s 2018 debut album, “Polychrome.”
The next track, “Cosmic Tuba”, lives up to its name, mixing brass instrumentation with electronic synths. “Grounded Ft. Javeon” is a dance between the vocal melody and electronic elements, until the three-minute mark. What follows is a sudden shift in meter and style reminiscent of that which takes place in “Starlite,” as a drum and bass melody takes over.
In the final song, “Taken Under ft. Anna Lisa,” the airy vocals work in tandem with instrumental breaks, preserving the electronic effects that fans have come to expect.
The balancing challenge that occurs in “Silk Wave” is not unique to KOAN Sound. They are definitely not the first to interlace vocal melody with “glitch-hoppy” effects. In fact, Rameses B pulled off this exact feat in his 2019 single “Something Real (feat. Danyka Nadeau).”
But it seems that the danger of vocalists in this particular genre is lyrics. More specifically, it’s the impulse to look to lyrics to excavate a sense of meaning, to ground the music in our lived experiences. There is a certain brand of cheesiness that comes along with vapid lyrics, even if they are featured in the most serene musical landscape.
Despite KOAN Sound’s new venture into the territory of featured vocalists, it seems clear that the vocals are just that: a feature. The lyrics are (perhaps intentionally) quite ambiguous, and therefore, lack the potential to contribute much meaning.
This ambiguity seems to indicate that the “meaning” of each song is not what is actually important, which is a feeling that pervades the duo’s entire body of work. The meaning is found in something outside of lyrics — it’s for fun, for experimentation, comfort, dancing or relaxation. It is a look into Weeks’ and Bastow’s understanding of what music is and how it can be experienced.
The duo continues to successfully balance melodic and non-melodic components; the difference is that this time, the melody is simply carried by vocalists instead of stringed instruments or a jazz ensemble. The vocals are part of, but not the central focus of “Silk Wave,” and the stylistic choices that the duo made in terms of sound and form seem to keep up the KOAN Sound tradition of maintaining an instantly recognizable sound.
Whether or not vocalists will come to be associated with this “signature sound” will only be determined through future releases. If “Silk Wave” indicates anything, it is that fans will continue to wait, while KOAN Sound, as meticulously as always, will continue to deliver.