Shield Patterns - Contour Lines

by Steve Rhodes Rating:7 Release Date:2014-06-09

Richard Knox is a busy man. Not only is he the owner of the prolific Gizeh Records; curator of a recent, highly successful day at the experimental Fat Out Fest Weekend; member of Glissando, Rustle of the Stars and A-Sun Amissa, and touring guitarist to such bands as Trespassers William, but he has also found the time to launch two-piece Shield Patterns. Dispensing with the chamber music, delayed guitars and neo-classical sounds of old, Richard has joined forces with singer and multi-instrumentalist Claire Brentnall to mine the crowded realm of electronica with debut album Contour Lines, producing a decent effort which, while it struggles for independence, is a nice break from the past.

Opener 'Shade' is a brooding number, full of haunted beats, sparse production and an aloof atmosphere. With lyrics to match (“It was cold for ages”), a minor key piano, the synthetic noise of what sounds like a heavily-reverbed guitar but isn't, and patient, quiet noises, it is an autumnal counterpart to Snowbird. Part-industrial in its barren landscapes, it is a strong opener, whose only niggles are Claire's hushed and somewhat distant vocal being sometimes buried too deep in the mix.

'Carve the Dirt' raises the bar with a darker tone, heavier beats and oriental-tinged percussion, like that favoured by Bjork or label mates Fieldhead and Conquering Animal Sound. Though the rather languid pace is maintained, Claire's vocals have more impact, especially when double-tracked, with the lyrics effective in creating a morbid love song: “Carve the dirt until we're safe in the ground together”.

Lead single 'Dust Hang Heavy', despite its title seemingly hinting at a continued fascination with darkness, is lighter and more memorable. Though the beats are heavier still, with dub a key factor and Massive Attack not a million miles off, the production is less dense, allowing the song to take shape more naturally, like a glacial Fever Ray or a blissed-out EMA. Likewise 'Dead Air', with its sampled and reverbed opening, treated orchestral samples and keys belonging to a 1970s clavichord, possesses more space, like The xx or Wild Beasts, allowing the song to breathe.

Though these are strong counterpoints to the occasionally excessively suffocating and vague tone of the production, the tendency to aim for the morose does tend to win out. 'Present State' maintains the heavy, often distorted beats, but possesses a more unsettling tone, with unexpectated but welcome shrill noises.

'WeYouMe' sadly disappoints, with just breathy noises permeating the song, adding little to assist Claire's vocal, and feeling more like a half-idea, unfinished and a little lifeless. Thankfully, 'The Rule' is much improved, with darker keys, stop/start electronic percussion, heavy loops and a building, foreboding atmosphere, like Wendy Carlos meets mid-80s Depeche Mode. Though the song sounds a little dated, it is a strong track which possess a neat mantric vocal towards the end, perfectly complementing the overall mood.

The tendency of Contour Lines is towards a battle for the songs to fit succinctly into brooding/dark or light/airy categories, which is a little plodding and predictable, but thankfully there are some notable exceptions. 'Ruby Red' with its beautiful opening line, “I know your ghost, I know him well/ 10 years or more spent haunting each other's door”, is an excellent, introspective number, with strings to the fore and patient piano and beats arriving partway through. It's a more fully realised track with David Sylvian and Bat for Lashes as strong reference points.

Closer 'Charon', with its almost tortured clarinet playing, possesses a darker tone, but gives way to a more reflective, if melancholic, interlude, before all the instrumentation meets in an intense set up for the reflective and poignant close, feeling like an experimental Roxy Music or latter-day Talk Talk. It's 'Ghost Words', though, that's the true star of the show, standing out with an immediacy which much of the album lacks. Processed keys which sound like a delayed guitar, an uplifting piano, beats and synths all come together, with a lovely drop in the chorus, like Sigur Ros or a yearning Chvrches, to provide a sumptuous melody for Claire's crystal-clear and beautiful vocals, echoing a modern-day lower-octave Kate Bush.

A strong and well-balanced set of electronica tracks with a template for something great, Contour Lines is an album which cries out for a few more hooks and an occasional acceleration of pace to drag it out of its beautiful, if often sedate mood. However, it maintains a consistent and key strength in the natural flow of Claire Brentnall's vocals and the minimal way they are treated, especially in an age when the tendency to poke, prod and interfere is the dull, dominant default setting. This is a confident beginning for Shields Patterns which shows promise they can and will easily build upon.

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