Album Review: Ultraísta

Supergroup albums used to suck. But in 2012, we have ample evidence that collaboration between artists from different styles and different backgrounds can come together to create something unbelievably cool. Earlier this year, we saw that happen with Divine Fits. Now, we see it happen with Ultraísta, the collaboration of Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, and visual/musical artist Laura Bettinson. These three each have a resumé to die for on their own. Godrich has long been a producer and collaborator with Radiohead. He’s also composed movie scores, including that for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Waronker is one of the scenes best drummers. He put the groove into Beck’s Odelay! and toured as the drummer for R.E.M. in the late 90s. He’ll also be laying them down for Thom Yorke’s new Atoms for Peace record. And then there’s Laura Bettinson, the 24 year old British artist, with a foot or a hand in photography, video, performance art, and now, music. She’s the mastermind behind all the crazy videos below this paragraph, and as you can hear, she also has a lovely voice. Together, we get Ultraísta’s debut record, hosting 10 tracks of dark, sensual bliss.

Ultraísta is ultimately spearheaded by Nigel Godrich and the sounds he loves. If you’ve been paying any attention to Radiohead’s stylistic projection since OK Computer (and especially since Kid A) or Godrich’s work on Yorke’s solo record The Eraser, then you’ll have an idea of what to expect. Ultraísta is chock-full of sputtery drums, dark synth textures, and mysterious vocal lines, but it is absolutely no way a regurgitation of Godrich’s prior success with Radiohead. If you pay enough attention, you’ll realize that the collection of sounds doesn’t change much from song to song. Rather, the band has chosen to define Ultraísta in a very specific way, and at least for the 10 songs shown here, they limited themselves to it on purpose.

As they’ve mentioned in past interviews, the three were brought together musically by a combined love for afrobeat and krautrock. Sure, that sounds a bit pretentious with no further comment, but it gives you some context for what’s presented here. Waronker tends towards African textures on the drums. They are overly complicated and often sound nearly out of place. But turn it up loud enough and the swirling textures will eventually blend in your head. Ultraísta is complicated, complex, and provocative pop music, and you don’t get any of those facets without the others. Some reviewers of the record have complained that many of the songs have similar build and aimless direction amongst their layers of texture and sound, but this claim is completely baseless. After all, if the band claims krautrock influence, then you can expect the freewheeling and unexpected twists and turns of Kraftwerk and Neu! classics that some would probably argue are equally aimless. But Ultraísta isn’t really afraid to experiment in new directions and play with sounds that Godrich or Waronker wouldn’t otherwise get to mess around with. Rather, Ultraísta is a fresh and unique offering from these musical veterans that they haven’t tried to serve us before. This is what keeps Ultraísta from being a tired and boring supergroup record.

But let’s not forget Bettinson’s wonderful contribution to this record and to the band itself. As the band has mentioned, Ultraísta is as much about the visual aspect as it is the musical. In early videos like those for “Smalltalk” and “Static Light”, Bettinson mostly worked with color and light to create coordinated visions for the landscape and soundscape created by the tunes. But with the more recent ones for “Bad Insect” and “Our Song”, she’s worked more with specific directing and cinematography to freak us out. “Bad Insect” is, for the most part, Bettinson jumping around, singing the song, and occasionally spinning. But in this trippy as all get out video, there are three or four Bettinsons for one time-space continuum, and the resulting dizziness will necessitate recovery. The video for “Our Song” is stop motion, made up of light-writing photographs, spelling out specific lyrics to the song. Occasionally, we’ll wee Waronker on the drums, throwing down. But the spazzy collection of light and motion does more with photographs than most video directors can do with live action.

If it helps you sleep at night, you can draw parallels between Ultraísta and Radiohead all day, but you’ll be missing out on a fantastic record that offers some very unique new visions from veterans of the arts. Between Godrich’s excellent musical direction and Bettinson’s visual contributions, Ultraísta is a unique experience on the scene today, and you should check them out. The self-titled record, Ultraísta, is out now in the United States on Temporary Residence. The band has not posted US tour dates yet, but check back to their website so you don’t miss out!

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