Album review: Ultraísta – Sister

Ultraista album cover

Ultraista album cover - Credit: Archant

An album of sophisticated, femme-fronted electronica from Radiohead and Atoms For Peace alumni.

Sister is the first new album in eight years from this interesting trio, comprising Grammy-winning producer and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Godrich, drummer/producer Joey Waronker (Beck, REM, Atoms For Peace) and singer-producer Laura Bettinson.

Their 2012 debut was hailed for its depth and triumphant experimentalism with Krautrock, African beats and electronica, but the band's promotional tour faltered due to personal circumstances. The members' other projects meant Ultraísta was effectively put on ice, so Sister offers a second bite of the apple.

Much of this nine-song set grew out of sporadic improv sessions, with Godrich then honing and paring them back in his London studio space, allowing the Radiohead producer the time and freedom for self-indulgence.

The results are technically impressive and intoxicating, ranging from breathless, restless beats to somnambulant, textured soundscapes.

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The propulsive opener Tin King crams in sophisticated percussion work, plangent keys and a stream-like vocal delivery, making for an exhilarating alt-dancefloor banger.

Bettinson's voice ranges from light, floaty and warm like a sheer silk scarf, to brittle and automaton-like.

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Sister feels like a true band record should, with all contributors given parity. Most of the time the naturally fey romanticism of Bettinson's vocals are delivered in just a few notes, occasionally punctuated with a higher register, very much coming across as part of the musical texture than a centre-stage performance.

No doubt this is intentional, and gives the impressive arrangements and musical dexterity its proper place in the soundstage. But this can sometimes result in an unfortunate disservice to the lyrics, which are often considered, mature, graceful reflections on love and personal struggle, worth further investigation.

That aside, the worlds of electronica and traditional instruments are both respected and impressively wed: Bumblebees slinks out of the speakers on a soundbed of birdsong and breeze from an English country garden, underscored by subtle synth work, before segueing to a brace of violins, Bettinson's softly soaring voice and that now-familiar percussion.

Sister is an admirable concoction of calculation and creation that feels otherworldly and natural at the same time - no mean feat.

3/5 stars

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