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Escapism Refuge Shares Debut Full-length, ‘Hold’

Escapism Refuge Hold Deep Heads - Jono Kay Image by Jono Kay / supplied

The album is a format which has had a weird time adapting to the modern world of music, especially within the world of electronic music. In fact many prominent (and semi-prominent) dance music producers have abandoned it altogether, preferring to stay ever-present in the streams of their listeners’ minds by keeping short releases, edits and remixes of tracks trickling out rather than investing in a longer project. Thus, the EP has maybe never been as prevalent or pivotal as it is now – but what this shift toward the shorter format has also done is ratchet up the expectation and excitement around the increasingly sparse full albums that appear, especially in underground electronic music. It leads one to wonder exactly where and when albums make sense.

Last week Friday afternoon, just as the week was ending and people packing up to head into their weekends, Joburg-based Bass and downtempo producer Escapism Refuge released his debut album, Hold, via UK imprint Deep Heads. This comes after just over a year’s worth of solid EP releases with the label, and two years since he first started gaining real momentum beyond his home country.

The momentum began with the brilliant (and sadly now non-existent) self-released projects which eventually landed him on Deep Heads with his first EP for them, Traps – which introduced his mellow, melodic, often ambient and rap-groove-inspired style to a much larger audience. ‘Scorpion’, the standout track from the project, read like a synopsis of everything he did well with subdued synth loops expanded on with piano and sampled vocal parts over thumping beats which grow in intricacy and pace over time.

Following this initial release Escapism went on a bender, producing multiple EPs in a matter of months and contributing music to the majority of compilation projects released by the label – taking a starring role in their The Session victory lap compilation with three songs. Each of them was undeniable, yet also undeniably Escapism, though they weren’t without growth. Ambient sections became longer and more layered, percussion varied and melodic elements took unexpected turns.

With each passing release, and after the revelation that this was all leading up eventually to a flagship album release later in the year, one couldn’t help but wonder what else could be added to the formula – never mind what actually would. Hold’s first single, ‘Mistakes‘, comes out the gates storming – the electronic percussion of old enlivened by furious live drumming and piano arpeggiation. The album tracklist, once released, also pointed at similar injections of humanity in the music with a surprisingly high number of vocal features.

In execution, each feature only pushes the production further towards the same mood established by Escapism’s back catalogue – a mood made explicit not only in the track titles but also the first words on the project’s first track (“it’s just me myself and I). If the mere presence of vocal parts, in the form of singing by Charli Brix and Zeb Samuels and mellow raps from Ill Chill necessitate a shift in sonic focus away from the intricacy of the musical parts, it’s a balance well met by the high level of songwriting. Everyone here stays on script.

In a macro sense, though, the album seems bisected by the the track ‘Blue’ – itself an impressive step from Escapism into the world of the fully ambient, flexing his ear for harmony and arrangement. Before ‘Blue’, sits both ‘Mistakes’ and a majority of the vocal cuts – and after sit some of the best bangers we’ve heard from ER. The productions sounds more expensive, the drums’ groove harder, and the sound design more inventive.

Early release and favourite ‘Savage Lust’ seemed as if it would be a stand out, with it’s focus on syncopation and greater lean towards the inherent rap influence of the music, but the trio of ‘Cold’, with its ever-rising energy levels and clean guitar interludes, ‘Sore’’s choppy footwork meets old school dub sampling style and the floating vocals and Sitar of ‘Fix It’ carry this album into excellence.

In the end this is an album that exists not because albums are inherently an important format or because EPs are inferior, but because the music existed, and was varied yet tonally coherent enough to warrant being placed on a single tracklist. Multiple listens are necessary here, and the project is an achievement on it’s own terms – which is maybe why it can declare such solemn and loner vibes with such quiet confidence.

Buy the album on Deep Heads’ Bandcamp here.

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