I’m not actually quite sure how I’ve not come across Kelpe before. The releases of Kel McKeown date back over a decade, he makes the kind of electronica I’m a real sucker for and he moves in circles close to other artists I love (his long-term collaborator is Chris Walmsley of Broadcast and Psapp fame). Having missed the first part of his career, then, it’s quite nice to jump on board at this stage, based on what I hear on The Curved Line, because the album really is very good.
Kelpe’s own bio is probably the best place to find a good general description of what to expect – “Kelpe’s influences range from the bleeps & bass of classic Warp artists to the funk of Sly Stone, and the minimalism of Steve Reich + Harmonia to the percussive space-scapes of Tortoise + Do Make Say Think.” That gives an indication of the width of scope on the album. McKeown is an experienced and knowing producer. This is heard is his ability to sound unfettered from the need to sound hip and now, but to avoid also sounding old-fashioned. Elements of both can be found, from the slightly wonky beats of the opening phase of ‘Red Caps Of Waves’ and it’s morph into half/double time blur under waves of static and glitchy drop sounds which nod to UK dance musics of the last decade, to the Warpish melody trills that flit across the entire album. Pleasingly, for me, is the fact that he can play with these melodic fragments in ways that make them actual earworms rather than aimless noodling, the kind of which bogged down most IDM of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Listen to the whoosy lead synth line three and a bit minutes into ‘Valerian’. A delicate balance between repetition and melody is maintained expertly – the melody holding the interest of the ear while the body is drawn along subconsciously by the underlying rhythmic push.
Kelpe avoids allowing this work to be tied to any one genre which may be to his marketing detriment but certainly makes for an album that is able to shape shift and maintain interest for the course. Yes – there is a kraut-esque ability to hold attention with rhythm, but what is overlaid is often surprising. ‘Sick Lickle Thing’ sees some live drums from Walmsley chopped and screwed into fragments of almost free-jazz, the steady, synthetic beat holding it all together. What Kelpe does across the whole album, though, is stand back and take a long form view of the history of electronic based music, then join the dots at will. So, opening track ‘Doubles Of Everything’ can draw illbient rhythms under trip-hop bass riffs, then throw proto-dubstep squiggles and double time hints over the whole thing, without any of the seams being evident. Or plump side-chained tape hiss circa 2013 under Vangelis arpeggios in ‘Chirpsichord’, then bring in a 90s french-house rhythm and it sounds like it would have always made perfect sense. ‘Morning Two’ even goes as far as laying field recordings down, processing the hell out of it, laying some Rhodes swells then cutting through the whole thing with the odd cheesy 80s synth blast and off-kilter synthetic woodblock. It really shouldn’t work, but it really does.
The Curved Line is an album bursting with ideas, all fully formed and in the service of a producer who knows what he is doing. It’s easily the most repeatably listenable single artist album of purely electronic music I’ve heard in quite some time and the only thing left for me to do now is to go exploring Kelpe’s back catalogue and find out just how it is he arrived at this place without me ever realising it.