I LIKE IT when artists save reviewers and other listeners precious Googling time with upfront information. There’s no doubt, for instance, that The Nomad’s new album is his 7th, because there it is, right there in the title. Thanks, Mr Nomad.
The Nomad’s real name is the difficult-to-pronounce Daimon Schwalger, making it not just convenient but totally understandable that he chose a simple and memorable artist nomenclature. His place in NZ electronic music history is assured, if only as one of the first (if not the first) local to produce a drum and bass album here, in 1998. That led to connections with the UK breaks scene, and collaborations with the likes of Rockers Hi-Fi.
For all that, however, the product of his labours have more often been workmanlike and while increasingly adept, short on inspiration or even a hint that he was ever going to do anything with the form that others hadn’t done just as well before.
I’m happy to report that 7 rather ups the ante. Whether it’s the result of Schwalger having a pig of a year in 2013, it’s hard to say, but he is open about that fact on his own website: ‘For The Nomad, 2013 was a year best forgotten. A series of unfortunate events led to a move to Te Tai Poutini, the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, to regroup and record.’ It goes on to write of ‘an outbreak of cathartic activity…proving when life gives you lemons, make beats.’
So, is 7 full of angst and anger? Hard to tell, really. Its 14 concise tracks certainly show a producer/artist with an intense grasp of his sound world, but I gather that any lyrical content is the work of guest vocalists like King Kapisi, Israel Starr, Christina Roberts, Dexta Malawi and Lotek, amongst a few others. And that brings me to the first of my dilemmas. While it has become par for the course for electronic acts to punctuate their albums with guest shots, they have to be aware of the fact that each time someone else’s vocal and lyrical character is stamped onto one of their backing tracks, it makes their album seem more like a Various Artists compilation. It’s not that the guests are bad, but that most of the time, they’re not great, either; and each successive guest sucks a chunk of the disc’s raison d’etre from under its dancing feet.
Then again, I guess the sheer variety encompassed by the guests (tough-guy rap from Lotek, sultry cooing from Christina Roberts on ‘Seductive Wolf Eyes’, Jamaican raga from Israel Starr) could make this a repeatable experience in salons and cafes where little critical attention is paid to the soundtrack. Me, I wanted to see what Schwalger could do with his instrumentals, which show enormous progress and promise, but get cut short every time, stomping out any potential for showing us what he’s capable of in terms of sound composition.
There’s nothing really startling in The Nomad’s mix of elements – dubstep, drum and bass, Jamaican dub, etc – but he does deal with them deftly. At his best, he sounds like Amon Tobin retrofitted to 2014, with a similar propensity for slightly eerie, industrially chilly sounds, sick sound effects (scary synth gulls and just enough dissonance to give it an edge), along with a tendency to throw in tricky percussive motifs.
It’s the sound design, and his ability to mould and sculpt both the rhythms and melodic constructions to make some compelling shapes that I liked best about 7. Curiously, for an album that sells itself as a dance release, it never made me want to move my saggy ass from the couch. I’d like to hear a dub remix shorn of all but the merest ghostly impressions of those fairly middling vocal tracks. GARY STEEL
Sound = 4
Music = 3