Written by Jourdan-Reiss Russell
In today’s music world, musicians rise and fall almost like seasons. One day, you might just be a producer and co-writer in the indie circuit, helping lift other artists into the limelight, then suddenly you can be put on and make waves on your own thanks to the power of the internet and the constant need to find the next best thing.
Consider someone like the singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor and his musical project, SOHN. Signed to 4AD four years ago, Taylor has been instrumental to artists like Kwabs and Banks, the latter of which is enjoying a large amount of success off her latest album The Altar, which Taylor had a substantial hand in writing and producing. Although he’s been signed to a major label for almost four years, Taylor has had little exposure, even after releasing his (albeit lukewarmly received) major label debut Tremors in 2014.
It’s this context that makes Rennen an interesting proposition. Taylor’s sound is cut from the same cloth as the electronic, post-dubstep, downtempo movement in the UK indie & underground scene made famous by artists such as James Blake, SBTRKT and Mount Kimbie. Heavy on synthesizers, modulated vocals, sampled vocals and a heap of angst, Rennen is a bold statement which seeks to capitalize on the buzz that the lead single Hard Liquor garnered. It’s a heavy hitting opening track, with warbling sub-bass and prominent vocals drawing you in at the beginning before the track blooms with synthesizer and distortion in the high end to add tension. Following is Conrad, a song which maintains energy with a less experimental sound which feels familiar and pop-oriented. From the first two tracks, the listener is introduced to Rennen’s M.O.; to operate in the well trodden area between slight experimentalism and electro-pop. The rest of the album’s tracks fall somewhere in this spectrum and help maintain consistency through its brief 37-minute runtime.
However, the songs here all seem to lack a key element that Taylor’s contemporaries seem to innately understand. To rely so heavily on electronic instrumentation and production to create what are basically a collection of ballads and downtempo tracks (save the very dance-inspired sections of tracks like the tail ends of Primary and Harbour, which was so unexpectedly good I’m surprised there wasn’t more of it) requires two key things; incisive lyricsm and a lot of soul. James Blake is such a seminal album because there’s a real beating heart to the initially cold instrumentation and soft falsetto. Songs like Before I Move Off on Mount Kimbie’s debut are so charming because the sampling gives a liveliness which belies the very repetitive and machined beat. That lack of soul throughout the album makes many moments forgettable, and other than Signals, which achieves a nice blend of downtempo and sing-songwriter soul with a lovely mix of percussive instruments and keyboard leads as well as Taylor’s modulated voice weaving through, too many songs feel very cold. The title track is sweetly sung in falsetto over simple but clean production, but the lackluster lyricism means it never really hits a chord.
With all this being said, there is real potential shown in the album which could help SOHN do well in the future. As I mentioned before, the well that Chris Taylor draws from is a plentiful one with so much room to explore. If he can learn to inject more personality into his song-crafting, especially his lyricism, or even take a left-turn to dance, SOHN can become an authority in the UK “indie” electronic circuit. With Rennen however, the undercooked lyrics and lack of genre breadth save a few switch-ups make the album feel like an attempt to take advantage of potential new fame that falls short of a truly convincing statement.