Leila Arab, the Iran-born, London-based electronic musician, is a methodical artist, but her methods are as equally rooted in impulse and intuition as they are in systematic thinking. Her albums take large periods of time to create—four years have passed since 2008’s acclaimed Blood, Looms And Blooms—and they often incorporate a long list of genres and influences, yet they never feel labored over or particularly calculated. Her newest album for Warp, U&I, is a collaboration with the Berlin-based DJ and musician Mt. Sims, who provides the oft-manipulated vocals on the album. Is Mt. Sims the “U” in the title? Is Leila the “I”? These questions of personhood don’t interest Leila much, and they quickly fall away as Mt. Sims’s voice becomes just another tool in Leila’s discomforting assault on the listener.
Make no mistake; this is a grimy, bleak record. After the hushed industrial whisper of the opening track “Of One,” the album quickly establishes its stylistic tics: squelching bass synths, sparse beats, miserabilist vocals and the occasional oceanic electronic texture. “Welcome To Your Life” comes closest to the goth-pop song-craft of the Knife, with a droll Sims repeating, “Seeing without your eyes for the first time,” as dueling drum patterns grow more manic with each pummeling synth blast. The album then switches gears for “In Consideration,” a haunting, almost-choral number that sounds like it was recorded by a group of shaman in a wet cave. It’s the type of song that allows the listener to discover little pockets of sonic beauty tucked beneath the ever-growing sense of dread that hangs over the album.
There’s not much beauty to be found here. The sense of discovery and adventure that’s so important to Leila’s distinct musical universe is still present, but the sense of wonder and excitement that often comes with discovery is harder to locate. Instead, most of the experiments and formal detours lead to twisted alleys and damp, deserted streets; every stone turned leads to a dark hole or a smashed, decaying animal. The only genuinely playful moment comes on “(Disappointed Cloud) Anyway,” a standout showcase for Sims’s alluring vocals, Leila’s masterful layering of disparate dance textures and some mean sitar playing. However, given the album’s often-schizophrenic nature, it should come as no surprise that the most accessible and sexy track on the album is followed by a burst of harsh dissonance. The brief palette-destroyer “Interlace” is a rush of near Merzbow-level noise, blown-out synths smashing into each other and squealing for life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s an abrasive reminder not to get too comfortable.
This soft/loud dynamic reoccurs throughout the album, but it never feels schematic or designed to irritate the listener. Slabs of noise have a seat right next to throbbing chiptune dance beats, which mingle with soft mood pieces, which buddy up with hypnotic stoner lasers, which rub against quasi-spoken word lullaby’s: Everyone gets a seat at the table. The eclectic second half in particular shows Leila’s range, while at the same time retaining her singular vision. “We are not what we think we are,” says a voice on the title track before it trails away repeating, “We are not… We are not… We are not…”
This urgent need to resist easy classifications can make the album difficult and obtuse at times, but the rewards are plentiful. It has a sketchbook-like quality that can be tough to pigeonhole, and its morose tendencies can be off-putting. No doubt some will be disappointed that Leila has abandoned her fanciful, magical realism for a brooding, doomed romanticism. And though I’ve managed to make listening to this record sound about as fun as jumping in a frozen pond, it’s worth the plunge.