In a recent review of Haiku Salut’s album in The Guardian, the band were declared “folktronica at its most mysterious”. The article would go on to declare the genre unfashionable, and even take a dig at Ukelele’s, glockenspiels and accordions describing them as “instruments consigned to history”; they obviously missed the recent Ukelele boom, or consider 2010 ancient history.
It was the return of the phrase Folktronica that really caught the eye though, the little genre that couldn’t never really was fashionable in the first place. Wikipedia describes it as “music comprising various elements of folk music and electronica, often featuring samplings of acoustic instruments—especially stringed instruments—and incorporating hip hop or dance rhythms.” Nice, vague and pointless, it seemed by definition to not really want to be a category that anyone wanted to fall into. The term was first coined by music writer Jim Byers in an attempt to categorise much of the output of labels such as Manchester’s Twisted Nerve records, who’s signings including Badly Drawn Boy, whose output shifted between acoustic guitars and the labels roots in electronica. The genre’s peak would come with the release of Four Tet’s seminal Pause in 2001, with a second wave in the mid-noughties including bands like Tunng, and even Caribou’s album, The Milk Of Human Kindness had touches of Folktronica.
It was around about then that the music-press seemed to give up on the phrase, perhaps the musicians who were heralded as it stars moved on, certainly Four Tet and Caribou’s already tenuous links to folk music are long gone. However like anything that has a moment in the limelight, it’s influence can linger, the output of bands like Lau and Haiku Salut are unquestionably marked by it, as arguably are Sufjan Stevens on The Age Of Adz, Damon Albarn on Everday Robots and Beirut on March Of The Zapotec. Perhaps there’s room for a Folktronica revival, now pass us a laptop and Zither, we’ve got an album to make!
We first came across Haiku Salut at the unlikely setting of London Popfest: the gathering of the great and good of Indie-Pop. We say unlikely because whilst the Derbyshire trio might be signed to the label associated with a legendary London based Indie-Pop club night, How Does It Feel To Be Loved?, they aren’t in the slightest bit Indie and are only very marginally pop.
Haiku Salut’s debut album, Tricolore, pretty much marked out the boundaries of the music the instrumental band make; Yann Tiersen inspired wheezing accordions, the scatter-beat electronica of Four Tet, the minimalistic beautiful piano playing reminiscent of Nils Frahm. It has been two years since Tricolore, but on first listen to second album, Etch And Etch Deep it’s clear much of what made Tricolore such a breath of fresh air remains. In fact even from just looking at the physical album it’s clear some things remain the same, the artwork, the middle ground of a kaleidoscope and a colour wheel, a series of tiny dots in a circular arrangement each with minutely different splashes of colour, shows that their attention to details and eye for beauty remains. The same can be said for the track names, from Becauselessness to The No-Colour of Rain And Dust, they continue effortlessly walk the same tight-rope between profound and just plain silly.
Gradually, as you listen to Etch And Etch Deep though, you begin to realise that for everything that remains the same, something here is bolder, this album, this band even, have changed. They have refined their sound and everything about it is improved. It is a record that sounds more comfortable, and more accomplished. Take Becauselessness, it begins with a chirping sound, that is at once natural but heavily processed; it’s almost the sound of someone attempting to try to recreate birdsong, as if from a future where birds no longer sing, and someone is striving to recreate nature from within themselves. Gradually they’re joined by pulses of sound, possibly an E-bow or a cleverly used volume pedal. There’s a glitchy rush of kick drums that enter but never quite settle onto a rhythm. There is a melody of sorts, lone echoing notes of glockenspiel, the rapid plucking of what sounds like a dulcimer. Then comes the wheeze of accordion, it sounds distant, almost lonely. There’s nods to touring mates Lau in their blending of the modern and traditional, as if they stand on the cusp of music’s past and music’s future, unsure of which way to turn. So beautiful, yet so intrinsically sad, a series of simplistic parts that add up to a rich a complex whole. They’re a band of contradictions, and this stunning piece of music is as close as they’ve ever got to resolving them, it’s the albums beating heart and easily their finest track to date.
Not that there’s not moments of brilliance elsewhere, Doing Better is possibly the closest to their previous work, the sparse twinkling of glockenspiel and gentle, hazy melancholy of the beautiful piano work. If that’s their least progressive, Things Were Happening And They Were Strange is probably the biggest departure. Starting off with a pair of duelling ukuleles, it’s then joined by synths and the menacing ‘ooh’s’ of a human voice, they gradually build to a Fever Ray like shriek as complex layers of percussion build around them, before it all comes tumbling down first to an eight-bit electronic bleep, then to, of all things an accordion, in anyone else’s catalogue it would sound entirely unhinged, here it’s an oddly natural progression.
The superbly titled first single, and opening track, Bleak And Beautiful (All Things) greets the listener with electronic bleeps that seem to rush around your headphones. Then following an audible sigh, rapid fire piano and pulsing accordion lift it and it becomes a long way from the post-apocalyptic, Dungeness-like wasteland the title implies. Hearts Not Parts is possibly their most accessible moment, with nods to Arcade Fire or Beirut in it’s hazy, fading sunlight feel, whilst in the jarring, jerky rhythms of You Dance A Particular Algorithm they might just have been the first band to ever write an accordion-trance track.
Like all the best instrumental music, it is an album that leaves much to interpretation but gives enough hints to hold together as a cohesive whole. Here the album seems to almost play out like a passing day, and it’s in the fading dusk of its latter tracks that it hides many of its most beautiful moments, particularly in the wonderful closing salvo that is The No-Colour Of Rain And Dust and Foreign Pollen. The former blending a Sigur Ros like piano line with gentle electronic clicks begins hesitantly before gradually resolving in something stronger and more dynamic, a theremin like sound seems to almost chase the piano melody, always feeling slightly short, just unable to mimic it, which gives the whole track an uneasy feel. Whilst Foreign Pollen highlights their ability to make an album that’s at once routed in nature but also constructed electronically. Reverberating piano notes hang in the air, a strong foreground melody is plucked on nylon strings and human voices are processed and warped into a choral buzz. It all fades to a lone gorgeous piano phrase, all rapid right hand melody and low left hand plodding that threatens to fade away into the ether, before a juddering crescendo of horns, accordions and loose drumming crashes in and lifts the track, and the album, to one final triumphant moment of joyous resolution, before it fades away and with a lone stab of piano is gone.
A truly beautiful piece of work, for all the talk of influences it truly see’s Haiku Salut stand out as a prospect unlike any other. If Tricolore felt like a beautiful underground success, Etch And Etch Deep might be the sound of a band now ready for all the critical acclaim coming their way. Either way they’ve come a long way from a nervous early afternoon slot at London Pop-Fest, we guess it’s true what they say from humble beginnings come great things.
Etch And Etch Deep is out now on How Does It Feel To Be Loved? Haiku Salut play album launches at Voicebox in Derby this Friday and The Lexington in London this Sunday, before various dates across the UK in September.