ChiaroscuroI Break Horses sophomore album, “Chiaroscuro”, Italian for contrasting light and dark, is a very multi-layered and somewhat intense affair. Thick with manic hi-hats, synths and stereo-centric effects, melodies, when they do appear, are strong and compelling but half of the album forsakes this dominant foreboding mood, representing the extremes of the title in a way. “Hearts”, I Break Horses debut album, was released in 2011 and was also a thick and textured, atmospheric electronic album but was also significantly more optimistic and in many ways accessible than this follow up. There were also songs on their first album, only a couple, admittedly, that you could dance to and although “Chiaroscuro” contains tracks that may inspire you to move, there is nothing here that will leave you dehydrated.

Swedish electronic music is seemingly dominated by female singers making pop music which is beautiful, ten steps ahead of their European neighbours and both sad and joyous; Robyn is their leader. Maria Linden and Fredrik Balck relate to both the beauty and sadness but these Swedes have more in common with artists from the US label Italians Do It Better such as Chromatics and Glass Candy with Linden’s sweet but depressed, sometimes dead-eyed, delivery replicating the female leads of these groups. Musically, recent releases from School of Seven Bells and Nigel Godrich group Ultraista come close with their rave-punctuated, electronic disco for introverts but I Break  Horses are often far more distant and harder to know.

“Chiarascuro” starts with the noir-like dramatic, piano-led, “You Burn”, a strong and slowly thumping Italian disco-influenced lead that doesn’t sound like any other song here. The next three tracks amplify the energy significantly and successfully and with “Denial”, the best of the trio, Linden’s dreamy vocals are initially attacked by stun guns, stuttering like a Stock, Aitken and Waterman twelve-inch and surrounded by syndrums that aren’t retro sounding but fresh and darkly pop. It really does sound great and, yes, sad and beautiful. The second half of the album does not replicate the first though. Linden and Balck have a distinct ability to create instant and exciting music but they then decide to pull back from this.  With tracks like the seven minute, funereal “Medicine Brush” (with very Julee Cruise falsetto vocals thankfully adding some respite), the overly sombre “Berceuse” and out of focus, both melodically and sonically, “Disclosure” all reinforcing the sense of nothing really happening over a long (feeling) period of time. All is not lost though and album latecomer “Weigh True Words” reignites the spark and distortion of the earlier tracks and with its repetitious but thrilling house percussion and brilliant chorus, it’s the best tune of the album.

Ultimately “Chiaroscuro” is a somewhat uneven collection of nine tracks; the longer songs need to be shorter and vice-versa .  The stronger poppier melodies can be frustratingly buried and, at nearly eight minutes long, the art-doom of “Heart to Know” is just very hard going indeed. Listen to this on a decent set of headphones though and there is still a lot of pleasure to be had and the humour in some of the diseased-sounding short synth motifs and computer game effects are thrilling. It may still be difficult to really understand what Maria Lindén is actually singing about but the lyrics aren’t the most important thing here. I Break Horses is really about mood and the album title is a clue to the strong contrast between the two sides of the album, the light may be under-represented but the point where the two collide can be dazzling.

UltraistaA remix album that surpasses the original recording is a rarity indeed. For a relatively small scale, indie electronic band like Ultraista it feels perfunctory to issue one at some point and along with contemporaries such as Au Revoir Simone and Lali Puna, as well as big hitters like Bjork and Lady Gaga, the thing they all have in common is wildly varying levels of success and are all too often the ultimate exercise in self- indulgence.

Ultraista’s self-titled album, from which the remixers all derive their source material, was released last October and considering the enticing concept of Thom Yorke’s right hand man, Nigel Godrich, making female vocal lead electronica, the actual reception was not entirely ecstatic. It was glitchy and introverted, not necessarily intended on occasion I’m sure and partly due to Laura Bettinson’s vocals often being quietly pushed back into the mix, which undermined the impact of some of the stronger melodies. The main problem of what is still an interesting and thoughtful album is that, apart for the trip (predominantly) hop of slowed down “Party Line”, it was an album with little variation of beat, rhythm or structure. This album then is the ideal companion piece, bringing out the necessary colour and bite.

All ten of the original songs get a new treatment and unlike many other remix excursions there aren’t six versions of one particular track leading to repetitive ear strain injury early on (there are additional versions on the digital version though), with the majority thankfully not exceeding the five minute mark. “Smalltalk (Four Tet)” may stutter and rattle enthusiastically but the melody which was previously implied but not exploited now shines through and “Party Line(Canon Blue)” brings Bettinson’s vocal out of hiding and makes it a tight, bright thrill; the same applies to the now delightfully menacing “Easier (Zammuto)”.

“Static Light”, always one of their strongest tracks, was originally swamped by synths and drones and now Matthew Herbert turns it into a buzzing, tumbling pop rush reminiscent of his more major production work with Bjork and Roisin Murphy. Oddly now becoming better known as a prolific remixer (how exactly did this happen?) than a film director, David Lynch brilliantly turns the averagely competent “Strange Formula” into a dusty and scuzzy blues drawl. “Bad Insect” and “Our Song” don’t fare as well, being overwrought drum and bass and blissed out coffee table respectively, but two out of ten ain’t bad.

In many ways a template for the successful remix project, Ultraista have proved that there is still life in what is a really a marketing tool if quality control is paramount and the DNA of the original material remains; this is certainly the case here. This collection is cohesive and thoughtfully complied and if it in fact had been released in this format, it might have succeeded in making a stronger impression than the original recordings themselves. As it stands, the remixers have done an exceptional job in exposing Ultraista as the dynamic, quietly foreboding band that they have the potential to be.

Radio (in my) Head editWell that’s just about got the British summer out of the way and we’ve got a few months of good music before the silly season of compilations and box sets starts all over again.  After a surprisingly good August, we’ve got a very busy September lined up for you.

We’ll be reviewing Texan fiddle player/singer/songwriter Carrie Rodriguez live in London and we should finally get to see the Anna-Christina solo show, “Pretty Little Lady?” towards the end of the month.  We’ve also got our only festival review of the summer from Lou; live at Leeds.  I’m sure we’ll find a few other gigs to tell you about as well.

John’s going to be reviewing the new material from Ultraista, Dawn Richard, Icona Pop, Natalia Kills and Goldfrapp while I’ve got the debut Dirt Tracks album for you and whatever else the postman or the internet send my way in the next few weeks.  The long-awaited Radio (in my) Head project is about to launch and we’ll have some news about that for you next week.  We’re also starting a new regular piece featuring links to new music we think you might like to hear.  More in a few weeks.