Luke Abbott

The slow-burning success of his 2010 album debut ‘Holkham Drones’ was something of a
dream induction into the world of professional music-making for Norfolk’s Luke Abbott: the
“game-changing electronic opus” stood out as “far and away one of Drowned in Sound’s
favourite records of 2010” and landed in Mojo’s ‘Electronica Albums of 2010’ list, amongst
wide-spread critical acclaim. Yet far beyond this initial flurry of praise, a steady trickle through
of sales long after the year of its initial release has continued to win over convert upon convert
as ‘Holkham Drones” joyous arpeggios and rolling primal rhythms seduce wherever they are
heard, sustaining an accompanying live touring schedule that has kept Luke and his
handcrafted hardware-jams rumbling across the clubs, gigs and festivals of Europe
throughout the intervening four years.
Then finding yourself in the position of having to live up to the expectations of such early
promise is a rather less enviable scenario, and it is a bold producer indeed that at this juncture
chooses to shun the unending cycle of hype and hits to take a step back to the basic principle
of making music as art. But that is just what Luke Abbott has done on his ‘Wysing Forest’
follow-up, named after the Cambridgeshire countryside’s Wysing Arts Centre which during the
winter of 2012 hosted Luke as their first ever musician-in-residence. The improvised
compositions which form the ‘Wysing Forest’ album stem from this six week stint in one of the
centre’s on-site studios, culminating in an intimate improvised performance in one of the
Wysing complex’s bespoke exhibition spaces which was then edited and compiled after a
period of after-the-act reflection into one rapturous movement. The finished article’s 52 minute
duration may have been chopped into 9 track-sized chunks for the sake of convention, but this
is most definitely an album which is greater than the sum of its parts, designed to be listened
to in one immersive, indulgent go. Oh, and this one starts quietly, as John Peel would surely
have said.
With an educational background that encompasses Norwich’s respected art school and a
degree in Electroacoustic Composition from Norwich’s UEA, Luke is no stranger to the
experimental avenues that run through electronic music’s leftfield, and his considerable
arsenal of music gear is bolstered by his own circuit bent hardware and custom software and
midi-controller creations. His pop music historian father Kingsley – author of biographical
tomes on Sixties luminaries like The Beach Boys and Phil Spector – had ensured that Luke’s
Norfolk fenland upbringing was one surrounded by records. But it was via the now sadly
defunct but no less legendary Output Recordings that Luke first saw his own vinyl release: the
wackily-titled 2006 12” ‘B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’B’ had the dubious honour of being the
last slice of wax ever pressed by Trevor Jackson’s much-mourned imprint. A split 7” for
London’s Trash Aesthetics followed soon after, before Luke eventually found a home for his
sprawling catalogue of unreleased goodies with Border Community in 2008, showcasing a
schizophrenic range of electronic sub-species – from 8-bit glitch through to ambient field
recordings – across the ‘Tuesday EP’ and ‘Whitebox Stereo’ 12”s.
The subsequent – and significant – impact of the elasticated primordial mantras of the
‘Holkham Drones’ longplayer (named after a beach on Norfolk’s northern coast) is surely in no
small part down to the unified cohesion of the album as a whole, as Luke rises to the
conceptual challenge: the inherent wonk of his boutique analogue synths and his bolshy,
offbeat and polyrhythmic approach to percussion imbue his organitronic creations with an
overwhelmingly warm, human and positively homemade character. Deftly positioning itself
between the twin poles of Krautrock and techno, the offbeat dischordant thud that runs
throughout ‘Holkham Drones’ is danceable, rather than dance music. “Like the second-cousin
of dance music. Once removed,” as Luke himself puts it. “You can dance to it if you want, but
you don’t have to.”
And although ‘Wysing Forest’ does see a return of sorts to his electroacoustic roots, Luke’s
intuitive arrangement ensures that here the full scope and variety of his electronic tastes are in
no way at odds. Only a pair of tracks – ‘Free Migration’ and ‘Highrise’, together forming the
subtle peak that marks the mid-point of the album – approach ‘Holkham Drones’ idiosyncratic umpen danceability. But it is thanks to Luke’s perfectly judged elegant transitional dynamics
that neither piece – although as dancefloor-directed as anything he has ever done before –
feels out of place amongst the album’s more mellow moments. Rather, the album as a whole
functions as something of a celebration of the sheer joy and versatility of the modular
synthesizer. Conrad Schnitzler-esque abstract explorations of texture and tone – like the
wonky synaptic indulgence of album opener ‘Two Degrees’, or the bolshy radiophonic
foreboding of ‘Snippet’ – could certainly stand alone as an artistic exercise: a study in synth, if
you will. But here they are suffused with an added contrastive significance as they merge
imperceptibly into the austere, elegaic pastorals of ‘Amphis’, where Luke’s retro-futurist
hardware takes on the handed-down-through-the-ages proportions of a rural community’s
much-loved church organ, scaling Sigur Ros-esque divine heights with a majestic restraint.
Far more than just the musical accessory of the moment, for Luke the infinite combinatorial
possibilities of the modular synthesizer serves as the perfect conduit for his improvisational
impulses, its tactile knobs providing him with the hands-on tools to experiment. For Luke
Abbott is that surprisingly rare breed amongst modern day electronic musicians for whom
genuine, heartfelt live performance – as opposed to the painstakingly arranged computer
bound product, and accompanying cobbled together on rails playback live set – lies at the
heart of what he does. Indeed, it is in this type of in-the-moment responsive live performance
that Luke’s raw talent is at its most obvious – as evidenced by the ‘Wysing Forest’
improvisational suite – and this modular-centred performative set-up awaits at the disposal of
the often arts-funded and occasionally multimedia electronic music festival circuit.
But that is not to suggest that Luke has any intention of giving up on playing to a club
audience: indeed, it is this very improvisational adaptability that lends itself to two
complementary live touring strands. Ever since his earliest forays into the live performance
arena the unique hedonistic freedom of the club dancefloor has provided an unusual – but
inherently open-minded – sandbox testing ground for his improvisational impulses, and in this
context the thudding heartbeat at the centre of ‘Wysing Forest’ may readily be fleshed out into
something of a more club-friendly danceable nature. The occasional DJ friendly vinyl outing
via spot of moonlighting for Gold Panda’s Notown record label (in the form of the ‘Modern
Driveway’ and ‘Object is a Navigator’ EPs) and a remix CV that reads like a Who’s Who of the
electronic fringes – from early adopters John Talabot and Dan Deacon through to the latest
esteemed bunch of inductees including Jon Hopkins, East India Youth, Nils Frahm and Simian
Ghost – have kept his club ties strong. All the while steering well clear of dance music’s most
tired cliches, Luke’s hypnotic entrancements instead seem to connect with something deeper
seated within, intuiting an urge to dance that is seemingly innate.
Meanwhile, back in Norwich, the modular synthesizer arms race continues apace as Luke
sets about kitting out his new studio, located in the garage annexe of his parents’ new house
which was once the private playroom of a Norwich-based TV producer (no, not that one…). As
one of the East Anglian city’s most famous musical exports (alongside Border Community
labelmate Nathan Fake) Luke often finds himself cast as something of an alternative
ambassador for Norwich, a role which he takes on with a certain reluctance. In his eyes, the
homegrown art and music scene from whence he sprang is defiantly “odd and awkward – I
don’t want people to think of it as being cool”. Clearly, here he fits right in.