60:30 min • Ninja Tune • June 10, 2013
John Preston reviews
Previously Bristol based but now residing in Berlin, Emika’s self-titled debut album from 2 years ago was a study in contained, claustrophobic vocal dubstep. I’m not talking about the stuff that catapults you onto the ceiling because of the sheer force of the bass wobble but a smaller, more accessible art pop alternative. It was quite lo-fi and often beautiful with a palpable sense of menace. DVA is less reliant on dubstep, a genre so omnipresence now it is merely predictable (see latest offender, Kylie’s ‘Skirt’) and has been partially replaced by a more straightforward electronic sound with an orchestral slant and inspiration.
The tone is very firmly, but also somewhat misleadingly, established by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’s appearance on the brief introduction track ‘Hush’ also featuring an operatic vocal by Michaela Srumova, never to appear again here. The fanfare of synths that open ‘Young Minds’ mimic the classically structured arrangements that are at core of DVA and I say mimic because this is a predominantly electronic and not acoustic album. Apart from on one other track, the intricate and mournful ‘Dem Worlds’ at the album’s centre which is just violins and Emika’s stranded vocals, strings are introverted and subtle and peak through only occasionally with mainly piano and keyboard melodies creating a more traditionally classical sound.
‘She Beats’ is spooked and monotone, spoken-word electro dub followed by ‘Filters’ where seperate piano and synth melodies make compatible companions. ‘Sing It To Me’ has a major dubstep whomp and ‘Centuries’ is medievalist electro pop as perfected by Natasha Khan. ‘Searching’ begins as a misleadingly sweet sounding r’n’b girl group pop song, completely unexpected albeit minor key, and contains the surprising lyric,
Look into my eyes,
Tell me where your thoughts come from, Bitch –
More than anyone else, this track brings to mind Charli XCX who successfully subverted the nineties girl group genre on her recent album, although Emika does so in an even more fractured way here.
Throughout Emika’s delicate but unrefined and muddied vocals, seem too keen to stay in the background; they are often pitched way back in the mix and are at times whispered and played backwards. In a year where there has been some excellent synthesiser work by the likes of Miss Kittin and Adult, sonically the tracks sound under produced and dull. An anaemic cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’ only highlights DVA‘s flaws with bored and boring, semi-inaudible vocals and a flimsy soundstage. After a far stronger first half there are more of these far less engaging tracks to be found as the album’s considerable running time gets into its final quarter.
DVA does not fully live up to its initial, early promise of drama and clear headed statements of a formal and electronic nature. Whilst Emika is a vocalist who may have a style of her own, it’s one which doesn’t always fit easily into the bold sonic stories she appears to be trying to tell here. Tracks that work well, and there are several, are more of a continuation of the dub step, trip hop sound of her debut and can stray closer into pop. Emika is an unusual artist certainly, who will need to gain the confidence required vocally at least to bring a more expansive and dynamic sound to the fore and allow her to fully inhabit the fascinating and unsettling worlds she seems desperate to share with us.