Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: The Watermark High – Bright Black EP

Paul van der Walt, who makes music under the alias, The Watermark High, has shown an incredible…

 

Paul van der Walt, who makes music under the alias, The Watermark High, has shown an incredible aptitude for blending acoustic and electronic instrumentals with beats and organic field recordings, only to formulate “evocative electronic sound collages”. In essence, his music can be heard as a sonic rendering of the harsh extremities visible in the South African landscape, where fast-moving urban chaos becomes a sharp break from the rolling countryside. There’s a certain amount of intrigue that is made manifest when two such varied sounds are combined, and this is what constitutes the allure of The Watermark High. On his latest Bright Black EP, we see him furthering his ability to merge the dreamy and the complex in his sound, where layers of intuitive beat work take the fore in what is otherwise a languid electronic backdrop. However, the only problem with bringing so many multifaceted sounds together into one is that the development of cohesion is put at stake, and in this case, it often becomes easy to identify the central mode with which he is working.

‘Saudade’, the opening track of the EP, is probably one of the best examples of perfect cohesion, where an intricate balance is created through tonal and textural alterations – a bit of give and take – to make the track feel as if the melodic piano and bubbly synths work alongside the beats, rather than as a whole other part of the track. ‘The Outsider’ is another standout track on the album, where smooth synths and gentle piano flourishes work into the groove of a simple head-bobbing beat, which gradually starts to drift into its climax with the steady addition of more complex percussion. ‘(W)hole’ also speaks of cohesive sensibilities, with a flow and purpose made manifest by keeping the track to the bare essentials: bass, synth and beat work, all working into a structure. These three tracks are clearly the work of a man with a keen ear for plotting sonic paths, and the resounding sense of intuition is evident in the amount of sensitivity that has gone into their creation. Every track’s development speaks of the bones of beat and bass that are simply wrought, in anticipation of the organic trimmings (his forte) that will entangle through them.

Right across the board of his repertoire, there is a sense of his ability to not only produce a track, but also feel a track. The organic trimmings that litter his music are often delicate and imbued with a formlessness that could only come from the psyche of the creator, which, despite its merits, can also be detrimental to the listener’s experience of the music. For example, ‘Muddle’ is what the title tells us it is: the tangle of synthetic flourishes and traces of discordant piano build-up around the somewhat unsteady epicentre. But despite this lack of cohesion, there is a definite sense of his talent when it comes to elevating sounds from almost nothing, into fully-fledged stars. ‘Weak End’ is another track that allows the trimmings to take the fore, and the roaring tonal shifts of electronica are built with dense layers of sounds. It is only the strong synth-line that is directing the cluttered track along, to what seems like no end. ‘Welcome to the Resistance’ follows in the same vein of over-saturation, whereby a certain layer of sound becomes the only identifiable one of the song, leaving the others to dwindle beneath. Too often do these tracks lose their way, and sadly, the listener’s attention is lost along with them. 

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Paul van der Walt is lucky enough to have an innate feeling for producing music, allowing him to build tracks with a solid foundation, and permitting him to experiment with exquisite flourishes. The better tracks on the EP suggest that he is more than capable of following through with this ingenious formula with aplomb, and it is here when his extraordinary talent is put on show. These moments are there to remind us why he is one to watch in the South African electronic music scene, but it is the more diffuse and cluttered tracks on the album that are there to remind us about how easy it is to get caught into the abrasive beatmaking style used by some of the weirder cats in the Leaving Records crew. 

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