It’s likely that Ikonika’s sophomore album, Aerotropolis, will ruffle a few feathers not because it’s groundbreaking, but because of the backward gazing aesthetic present throughout its 51 minutes. Three years after the release of Contact, Love, Want, Have Sara Abdel-Hamid is back with a refined take on the sounds of her youth. Her debut album came out around the time that Kode9′s Hyperdub label began to transition from an imprint based around dubstep and its many strains to a flat out indie label with loose genre criteria. At the time, she was still a novice in the production world with only a couple of years’ worth of experience under her belt. The album reveled in that fact, using unconventional melodies that, while pleasing to the ear, a more experienced musician would scoff at. This isn’t unusual and some of dance music’s most influential and revered tracks were created in this fashion—think Derrick May’s “Strings Of Life.”
For Aerotropolis, Ikonika took time off to strengthen her base and put together an arsenal of sounds not all that far off from her debut. The difference is its roots are exposed; there’s nothing masking her ’80s baby nostalgia this time. A combination of proto-house and the bones of electro are scattered throughout the 14 tracks. The central theme of the album is in the title, Aerotropolis, an idea that undoubtedly has popped into the minds of many traveling DJs and musicians. From the LP’s short opener “Mise En Place” to tracks like “Lights Are Forever,” the idea is brought home with clarity; it’s not difficult to picture planes lifting off left and right as her music takes the place of in-flight entertainment. Besides bringing up images relating to aerotropoli, it has a synthetic sheen that possesses the retro-futurism of early techno. This takes the place of the variations of 8bit and chiptune sounds, which were at the heart of Contact.
From a technical standpoint Ikonika’s production chops have improved tenfold. The album is incased in the warm analog glow that makes it a pleasure to listen to. Where most electronic albums put an emphasis on particular frequencies, Aerotropolis sits in a neutral field—the kicks are punchy, the highs are crisp, and the bass is at just the right frequency (one where it makes the listener feel fuzzy.) Every arp, lead, reverb-drenched clap has its place in the mix. It’s meticulously pieced together with every part propelling and sustaining the track. Often, music in this vein gets so repetitive listening to the entire five or six minutes feel unnecessary. For the most part Abdel-Hamid avoided that pitfall by keeping tracks short and condensing the arrangement. “Mega Church,” her collaboration with Optimum, is a shining example of that, each section recycling a small bit of the previous making the progression more natural.
There’s no denying this a well-produced album. It’s easy on the ears and makes sense as a summer album. When you look at where she came from and what was happening in music during her initial popularity, it’s hard not to feel a slight tinge of disappointment. The album doesn’t bring anything new to the table, opting instead to build on established structures.