words by trevor elkin
Imagine you were the last person on earth, how would you know? Would you hold onto the hope of finding others, or be overcome by doubt and loneliness? An ‘endling’ is the last of an animal species before it becomes extinct. It’s a pathetic label that projects a sense of shame and helplessness, but it’s a word which reflects more on the nature of man.
Named after a now extinct songbird once loved by Hawaiian kings and traded by European collectors, O’o is the formidable duo of Victoria Suter and Mathieu Daubigné and their debut release, Spells is as magical as it sounds.
A finely-tuned balance of wild, organic textures and crisp, digital electronica, the six songs pivot around Suter’s dynamic vocals. Her voice is incredibly versatile and it demands our attention whatever form it takes, either in its natural state or processed to appear as something else – a songbird, ghostly breaths perhaps, or, as on ‘Spell’ strangely like the Chinese stringed Zhonghu. “Vocals are as much a percussive instrument as a conduit for melody. Whether sampled and modulated or natural and vulnerable, there is so much that can be done”, O’o explains. This diversity is certainly a critical feature of their sound and also one which arouses curiosity.
O’o’s attention to the tiniest sonic details perhaps marks them out as perfectionists, building their beautiful works of art from found sounds others might ignore. Opening track ‘Moho’, for example, seems strikingly simple and yet conveys a complex, haunting tribute to their namesake. Its poetry and Suter’s melodic phrasing is utterly disarming, drawing you very quickly into the crushing sentiments of the song. Listen carefully and you will hear the sampled calls of the very last O’o bird fading away:
“Sweet tooth beak. Soft melody peak
Oh O’o, go round and round in circles
Looking for a honeydrop, til you vanish, til you drop”
The pair first met and became friends at high school in France, reuniting years later in Barcelona where they are now based. Their initial artistic connection and collaboration was rekindled, but took a while to manifest as anything other than ideas: “after spending a long time thinking about what we might be, developing ideas together came very naturally”. Elsewhere on the album, there are intriguing threads to follow, leading to further sources of inspiration. Their joint love of traditional music from different global communities plays out in folk melodies, rhythmic repetitions, chants and drones which lend ‘Spells’ a profound, spiritual atmosphere. Their classical training at Conservatoire gave O’o’s intuitive musicality some form and structure, heard throughout and which wraps up the songs into a coherent whole.
Alongside its stunning vocal elements, ‘Spells’ excels in its intelligent use of electronica to complement them, notably on ‘Alone’ and ‘Fuel’. Samples seamlessly integrate with the flow of the song, while their Prophet 8 analogue synth either stands tall, leading a vibrant dance or blends in its subtle rushes of colour. Other times, the intense collision of technology and traditional melodies, as on ‘Pendulums’ decaying refrain, spawns something new with its own hybrid sense of direction and purpose. O’o say their next challenge is to bring all this intricacy to a live environment, through electric guitar, loop station, synth and theremin. If their approach to making this album is anything to go by, a live set would not only be possible, but compelling.
O’o, and by association, ‘Spells’, is a rare, unique thing to encounter in the dense jungle of cross-over music. One last explosion of pure joy and inspiration, raging alone against the darkness that surrounds it.