Cages - Folding Space [Cold Spring Records - 2009]Remember trip-hop? Yes, this was the hip blend of hip-hop, electronics and, often, depressed female singers that was hugely popular halfway through the 90s. Portishead, Massive Attack, Morcheeba – each unleashed their own brand of heart-breakingly melancholy music on the world, and fall for it we did. Yet revisiting an album like Portishead’s Dummy now, fifteen years after the fact, doesn’t work as well as it should. If anything did not age well it’s trip-hop. Out-dated beats, 90s aesthetics, artificial grainy vinyl crackle – there’s so much to take offence to. Yet though trip-hop, in its 90s form, has sort of kicked the bucket, much more interesting and timeless derivatives (if such a term is even fitting) have sprung up in its wake. Heck, even Portishead made a glorious return to the music scene – their 2008 release Third is one of the most harrowingly beautiful things you’ll ever hear.
Cages’ major debut 'Folding Space', however, is certainly much more harrowing, and no less beautiful for it. As the opening track, Dying, kicks in, Nola Ranallo’s vocals immediately transport me to a trip-hoppy place – all the right outburst, the longing, the pain; here (and elsewhere on the record, like on Dream Dip Sailor) her voice even has a Björkish tinge to it. Yet there’s an edge to it – a dark, serrated, rusty edge – and the singing gets under your skin like you wouldn’t believe, and as Nola whispers, then screams, then cries, then screeches, you find yourself with goosebumps all over, as much from a haunting realisation of fatality as a realisation of purest beauty.
The musical backdrop provided by David Bailey is anything but commonplace either. Through a variety of means Bailey arrives at a sound that is halfway between music and noise. Here and there, he plays fairly straightforward bluesy guitar licks, nonetheless suffused with subtle grain and clicking almost-beats (Psalm to Mother) – the slightest of reverb, furthermore, bestows it with a roominess, and ultimately, it sounds desolate, hopeless, painfully great. Elsewhere, the sounds are harder to pin down and more atmospheric; lush ambient sound scapes, then calm and then clashing and crashing, support Nola’s gripping vocals perfectly, sometimes mirroring directly the gloom and grief, but elsewhere rather juxtaposing the brooding vocals with soft sweetness.
Actual beats are largely absent on the record, except for 'Prisons of Light', which has a driving rhythm to it, courtesy of guest artist Cranedive. By no means does it feel out of place, nor does it feel cheesy or anything like – rather, the atmosphere achieved so perfectly throughout the rest of the record is kept intact and further expanded. Halfway between soothing and calm and phenomenal bursts of anger, Cages ride a wave of near-perfection. There is so much about this record to love and to discover. If there is any downside to it, it’s that it can be sameish at times. Clocking in at almost fifty minutes, the atmosphere, tempo and sound palette are fairly constant throughout, and there’s the smallest risk of weariness. However, most importantly, 'Folding Spaces' is consistently excellent – and that’s an incredible achievement in itself.
'Folding Spaces' is a remarkable record by any and all means. A perfect five out of five stars? Well, that’s tricky – there’s about thirty records, tops, in the entire world and the entire history of music that are worth five stars to me, and it seems a bit too soon to lump Folding Spaces in with these albums, all of which I hold so dearly and love so, so much. Yet, like I said, Folding Spaces is remarkable, and while it may not be five out five stars, it certainly skirts the edges of Five-Star Town – four and a half, I say, with a benevolent rounding to five. Seriously, do not miss out on this. Sven Klippel