Ultramarine – This Time Last Year (Real Soon LP, released on 30 September)
A review by Kevin Pearce.
This Time Last Year by Ultramarine is a remarkable suite of music. Very, very occasionally a record seems to be made for, or as an antidote to, its time. This Time Last Year is one of that elusive rare species. The timing is good: it feels like there is a reservoir of goodwill for the Ultramarine duo to draw on. And yet, while this is a record of ridiculous beauty, melodic and substantial, a sweet course to get your teeth into, it still seems surprising it even exists.
Caught By The River followers may have picked up intimations that the first Ultramarine LP in 15 years was imminent when the site featured some photography by Ultramariner Ian Cooper of the area of extraordinary natural beauty around the Blackwater estuary in the rural east of Essex. It was in this area, at a studio in Goldhanger, that the record was lovingly, painstakingly, put together. It is tempting to interpret This Time Last Year as a soundtrack to complement Ian’s photography. This may be a misreading but the feel of the tracks (and, indeed, the titles like Dugout and Decoy Point) suggests this may be the case. And there has always been a sense of place in Ultramarine’s recordings.
One striking feature of This Time Last Year is that it really is a work that seems made to be played in its entirety. At just over 40-odd minutes long it does not outstay its welcome, and lends itself perfectly to a period of private contemplation, wherever and however it would best suit the listener. It is a record to get lost inside of, and it works because the music is emotional, moving, without being intrusive or disruptive. There is an art in that, there really is. It takes an understanding of dynamics to construct a suite of songs which is pitched just right, with enough variation (of pace, instrumentation, etc.) to sustain interest and stimulate the imagination without shattering the mood.
The record is unmistakeably Ultramarine, with their trademark unostentatious invention. But what is distinctly odd about This Time Last Year is that it seems somehow to be suggesting we should start this century again, at a different pace, from a different place. This is instead going to be an epoch set in a preferable, parallel universe where Carl Craig’s More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art and The Fawn by The Sea and Cake are the revered records, the defining documents which act as a springboard, where it is natural to set soft disco sashay against unsettling Basic Channel pulsing, where records like the new Ultramarine one are universally celebrated.
Elements of This Time Last Year will seem familiar, but they are stripped down, taken apart, manipulated and put back together in pleasantly surprising ways. Fans of Ultramarine will welcome the presence of skittering jazzy beats, the itchy funk, the dub daze, the Brazilian traits, the fusion flourishes, burbling and percolating electronics, and so on. But what is very apparent with this record is the underlying acoustic warmth, like the gentle guitar motifs chopped up and treated and stirred back into the mix in such a seductive way. The LP as a whole is such a curiously attractive blend of the ancient and modern, in sound and technique, it is almost impossible to really pin down.
The duo may have taken a long time out, but they didn’t disappear altogether from the music scene. During the past decade Ultramariner Paul Hammond has quietly been running the underground electronica label Real Soon, putting out the occasional record, as part of a thriving international network which mainstream media and (let’s be honest) most of us are oblivious to. It is through Real Soon that Ultramarine have chosen to release This Time Last Year, which may mean there will not be ‘sponsored’ streams and mainstream media video links hither and thither to promote the record, but the process of putting it together in a real DIY way will surely have been more rewarding than some of their previous experiences in the music industry.
When contemplating This Time Last Year one of the intriguing aspects is that eternal question of ‘taste’: the right reference points do not necessarily make for great art. Or, to look at it another way, one set of musicians can take certain admirable ingredients and come up with something so lifeless or hollow or irritating the listener is driven to destruction while another lot can take the same components and create something that’s great fun and weighty and arousing, as Ultramarine have done here.
It really doesn’t matter whether you are someone who has twirled around the living room to Saratoga countless times and bellowed along so often with Robert Wyatt on Happy Land, or if you weren’t even born when the last Ultramarine LP crept out: This Year Last Year is an extraordinary enriching experience, however you choose to listen to it. Whack it on and feel the tension flowing out of you.
Ultramarine’s Paul Hammond is the guest DJ at the Caught by the River Social Club event happening in London next Monday (30th). Ticket enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.