A couple weeks ago in a Twitter conversation with a fellow 130BPM writer, I described Balam Acab’s debut album Wander / Wonder as a “special record.” It’s admittedly a sort of vague description. Wander / Wonder doesn’t get packed off to school with his name scrawled on a brown paper lunch bag, his parents’ disingenuous praises built up around him. “Special” in its sincerity, implies a certain amount of uniqueness, which Wander / Wonder certainly manages, but in the case of this LP it also refers to a degree of exposed and vulnerable personality. As if you’re getting a look into something unawares – private memories and unfettered emotions. Wander / Wonder is intimate and personal and willing to let its flaws shine alongside its most appealing and endearing attributes.
With that said, it’s harder to step back and throw Balam Acab back into the witchstep dubhouse field. With the release of his See Birds EP at the end of last summer, Acab was propped up with Salem and label-mate oOoOO as one of the witch house aficionados, though the young Pennsylvanian producer never really fit the bill all that snugly. His crawling BPMs hovered around the same general area, but where his assigned peers were treading darkened dystopic synth textures, Acab gravitated toward a collage of sampled nasal-pitched vocals, shimmering pianos, pastoral strings, and syncopated naturalistic field recordings – more readily recalling Gas’s Pop than a haunted house. More importantly, Acab also showed a striking knack for subtly heart-rending melodies – a strength that’s only further realized on Wander / Wonder.
See Birds was aggressively and endearingly bedroom-bound – Acab’s samples ripped from YouTube clips and assembled into synth heavy compositions. On Wander / Wonder the young producer manages to broaden the scope of his arrangements both sonically and aesthetically. There’s a whole lot more negative space with which Acab spreads his textural placement. The seams of the assembled samples are still clearly visible – a quality that helps establish the aforementioned intimacy – but on his debut, Acab seems to be interested in constructing songs with ascending and descending momentum instead of leveled meditative tracks based around plus/minus-ing samples. Vocal fragments are turned into helium-voiced singers and the movements and peaks in the tracks push Acab’s emotional affect to a startling degree, not to mention well beyond simple melodic proficiency.
Five-minute intro, “Welcome” opens with a flood of vinyl crackle, building from percussive field recordings into a looped receding scratch of percussion behind an austere choral sample and silvery synth drone. With a minute to spare the track explodes into ringing chimes and an exultant orchestral sample before fading out. The immediately throbbing “Apart” follows, blowing up into vital ignition with a sensuously pleading pitched-up vocal. Acab builds the track into patient ascension with shimmering synthesizers and layered vocals behind the shifting vocal sample that ultimately reaches a straining climax. Its a stark an affecting transition from the subterranean beginnings of “Welcome,” and neither track stands perfectly on its own because of it.
While songs like “Apart” and “Expect” emulate the same style of drum programming on See Birds, Acab manages to often push his percussion into a more textural realm, before eventually relenting to snare, kick, and hi-hat for the sake of rounded composition rather than the basis of a song. “Oh, Why,” begins with a compressed and echoing vinyl pop before climbing to a sighing distant snare, a lulling vocal whispering unconsciousness. The kick and clapping snare don’t arrive until past the halfway point, but their arrival seems only to enforce the earnest beauty driving the track instead of being the driver itself. When the track truly opens up with a chirruping synth and deep bass hum at about a minute to spare, the results have a pretty revelatory affect.
“Await” is probably the most beautiful thing here and contains the minimum of percussion. The track begins with a stew of bubbling cavernous synths and a single looping woodblock clack before opening onto a vast emptiness, letting a muffled vocal and resounding harpsichord note seep gently into the space. The vocal crashes its way out of obscurity accompanied by an ebbing wave of vinyl ambiance and descending tinkle of piano, running on a palpable and patient loneliness. Regardless of its emotional signposts, “Await” exemplifies Acab’s penchant for detail that rivals James Blake’s work on Klavierwerke last year, making subtle use of field recordings, minor percussive samples, and production tools to build micromanaged ambiance.
Wander / Wonder is the sound of a producer whose talent exceeds his skill. The span of a year already sees Acab making some giant strides. It was apparent even on See Birds that Acab has a singular voice, putting forth a relentless and travel-ready emotionalism that’s rare for some of the most accomplished artists in the same field. There’s a simultaneous show-of-hand that somehow compliments that emotional weight rather than hinders it. It’s that weight that gives these compositions durability, and considering how naked Acab leaves his samples, some staggering life. All said, it’s really the bottom line here.