Barbarossa | Bloodlines
by Lee Adcock
Before we begin, let’s pause for a moment and consider why you’re here. No, not that physical space that you’re sitting at right now, but the web address that your browser’s locked into. Why do you and I plug into webzines – and, particularly, Gold Flake Paint? Simple, really – because we care about quality music, and we know that the true artists typically aren’t the ones charting on Billboard anymore. If you should ever doubt this, just stroll into a public space and listen to the hits they’re churning out. Modern-day pop, you’ll find, is crowded with sound – cookie-cutter beats that throb perpetually, overbearingly bright vocals that promote parties and love and sex, flat and feeble synths and guitars that add flavor rather than musicality.
I bring this up, because one could plausibly mistake the venerable James Mathé of London and his solo project Barbarossa as one such “pop” act. After all, the man has one of the silkiest, soulful falsettos imaginable, the sort that could melt a million girls’ hearts simultaneously. However, what I hear in this new LP, Bloodlines, isn’t about to accrue a mindless crowd of lusty schoolgirls any time soon. No, Mathé has crafted here a more cerebral form of slow-burning, electric-tinged, melancholy soul – and by “soul”, I do mean in the most spiritual sense of the word. Granted, for many listeners, the stylized vocals and deceptively simple lyrics will be the most salient highlights – but Barbarossa merges these with genius touches of rhythm, detail, and melody.
Consider the opener, the title track. The first sound we hear on the album is the solemn sustain of an organ, followed shortly by a down-trodden downbeat haunted by watery guitar strums. What follows is nothing short of astonishing – somehow Mathé evokes both the sensitive soul crooners of the 60s and the later (phenomenal) work of Talk Talk in one immersive, achingly direct experience.
This confessional, intimate mood that Barbarossa channels in “Bloodline” is the primary vibe of the album. “S.I.H.F.F.Y” is strikingly similar to the opener, but is somewhat more buoyant, far more minimal, and shimmers with carefully plucked guitars until it swirls into a gallant coda toward the end. Dual drum machines drive the stirring “Battles”, a yearning ballad laced with gentle guitars that, in spite of its sober lyrics, remains wondrous. Bloodlines closes, too, on an intimate note, with “Seeds” – and it’s one of the best examples of how Mathé has merged acoustics and electronica. As the sleepy guitar trickles onward, odd analog sounds creep all around – bubbling underneath, sparkling above, whizzing alongside, wobbling behind.
The most devastating track, however, could be “The Endgame” – Mathé truly outshines himself on this one, drawing out that aching line “I no longer you in the eye” with such heart-wrenching delivery that only the stoniest of hearts won’t be swayed. The sparse arrangement on this one – mellow strums, distant drum crashes, ghostly sustains – prevents the tune from ever wallowing in self-pity, or sagging in melodrama. As is, “The Endgame” is a slice of life, a private tragedy that normally unfolds behind closed doors, laid bare before our prying eyes.
Of course, Bloodlines is not merely a closed-door affair. Oh, no. Barbarossa can be thrilling, too. Dig the piercing groove of “Pagliaccio”, which gives way to a warm and instantly memorable chorus. Or, there’s the leading single “Turbine”, that twirls quickly to a heady peak with its perky, Black Keys-esque riff. Granted, we can’t forget the other single, “The Load” – which, mind you, is not a cover of that classic from The Band. Indeed, it’s about as contrary as one could imagine, with its urban, downbeat vibe peppered with handclaps. “Butterfly Plague” wasn’t a single, but it could have been – this fantastic slow jam features a warped-out guitar that lends an enigmatic air to the gorgeous chorus.
If there is one sappy-sweet moment on this album, it may be on “The Savious Self”. I can’t pinpoint exactly why this is my least favorite track on the album – although the overwrought Earth Angel strum that underlies this track may provide a clue. Ach, but I’m being picky here. You’ll probably find that Mathé’s blissful side is in top form, but I say that there’s not as much gravity or depth to this one. Maybe that’s why this track was conceived, though. Who am I to judge?
I can’t complain, really. Because, all in all, Bloodlines is a brilliant album, a masterful convergence of soul-powered vocals and sensitive production. Mathé has proven himself as not just a pretty voice, but an engineer of emotions, a musician that experiments with instruments in the same fashion that a painter toys with color. Mind, I played through this album quite a few times to realize this, for Barbarossa is a nuanced project – but, ultimately, Bloodlines delivers. It’s out on August 5th, courtesy of Memphis Industries, and should not be missed by anyone who’s searching the vast web of music for a little modern-day tenderness.
Bloodlines is released on August 5th, via Memphis Industries.