Any band that describes itself as an “experimental trio” that has a song on their EP called ‘Opus 1, Andante in…
Any band that describes itself as an “experimental trio” that has a song on their EP called ‘Opus 1, Andante in B Major’, and that employs, “vocals, guitar, beats, drones and bleeps” is always going to invite a fair amount of obfuscation and pretension. That is exactly what the starkly minimalist BandCamp page of Original Swimming Party’s debut, The Blue EP, provides in a cascading palette of blue. It serves the purpose of roughly describing the band’s aesthetic: warm coloured hues of instrumentals but stripped back to an almost cold monochrome.
Two members of the band come from established Cape Town indie band backgrounds, in the form of Jeremy de Tolly from the Dirty Skirts and Greg Abrahams from Nomadic Orchestra. The electronics are provided by Thomas Glendinning, also known as the sometimes-prolific ELPHNT. The band works in sparse guitar arrangements augmented by ghostly electronic flourishes that create woozy and atmospheric textures. Obvious comparisons can be drawn to the barely-there pop of The xx, the desolate guitar landscapes of Darkside and – on the electronic front – there are similarities with the deconstructed compositions of Tim Hecker and the miasmic drones of Oneohtrix Point Never. The trick that these artists, working on the frayed edges of music, show is that the economic use of instrumentals on a song does not have to result in a loss of emotional force or drama. The Blue EP shows off the band as a group of intelligent and competent musicians but it frustrates in its inability to commit to its “experimental” cause.
The album opens up with ghostly folk murmurs of ‘Weeping Song II’. A solitary guitar riff is joined by gentle percussion that opens up for the pained vocals from de Tolly. It shares a bond to the sort of repurposed future-Americana that Darkside executed exquisitely on tracks like ‘Paper Trails’ and ‘Golden Arrow’ from 2013. However, unlike those two tracks, there is a timid quality to ‘Weeping Song II’ that makes it a limp and uneventful five minutes. There is so much internal tension begging to be exploited between the guitars and de Tolly’s haunted murmurs that could have made it a more resonate opening statement.
Second song, ‘No One Breaches The Sea Wall (But You)’ is braver. The guitar, now undercut by simmering and aqueous percussion, tempts and teases until it reaches the static wave that is its climax. The band submerge the vocals into a clamour of frayed strings and decaying drones, and it represents a bright moment on the album that shows how interesting they sound when they push their sound to its most austere abstraction. The originally titled ‘ES330MxRps-6 (But You)’ is next and serves almost as a coda to the previous song as it continues with the electronic haze where ‘No One Breaches…’ left off – providing a ponderous interlude for the EP.
The next song is the fragile ‘Opus 1, Andante in B Major’, which sums up the immense promise of Original Swimming Party and also their nagging weaknesses. Heartbeat-like percussion is supported by restrained vocal harmonies to create the subtle devastating electronica that evokes pioneers like Portishead. The angst in the lyrics reaches breaking point as De Tolly sings, “I don’t want to live / I don’t want to die”, opening up for a tragic and lonely string section that compounds the melancholy of the song. The problem is that it could and should have been even better. The tension that builds up to the string catharsis is cut prematurely just as the song threatens to collapse beautifully in on itself; but just as the pressure is ratcheted up, it is released. It makes what could have been a great song a good one.
The album ends with the darkly sinister handclaps of ‘Requiem’ that is not helped by the contrived lyrics, “I always eat alone / Another night of stone / Stripped to the bone / No terrors in the bay / I can change.” Employing similar guitar meanderings it, like the other songs, is too restrained to standout. But it has an assured and accomplished climax filled with fluttering guitar and ominous synths.
The best moments on The Blue EP are when these talented musicians opt not to be so calculated and rather commit to overwhelming their songs with texture and sound. With the bare album design and obtuse song titles that calculated nature is plain to see. But, because of that, they lose sight of the fact that minimalism’s virtue is in showing that beauty arises from the simplest of ingredients. This is a band finding and nuancing their sound; there are enough bright moments on this EP to suggest they are not that far off.