Shield Patterns: Contour Lines
Gizeh Records

A guitarist or pianist whose playing style overly resembles that of another musician's can always take steps to modify his/her style in order to put some distance between the two. In that regard, an instrumentalist has it over a vocalist, given that if the latter's voice happens to sound like another singer's, it's less easy for differentiations to be effected without artificially altering the natural character of the voice. This, put simply, is the particular challenge facing Shield Patterns, the collaborative project founded by Manchester-based duo Claire Brentnall and Richard Knox in 2012, as Brentnall's vocal delivery can't help but draw comparison to Kate Bush's, an observation of which perhaps many a review of Contour Lines will make note. The similarity is especially noticeable when Brentnall's singing moves to a song's forefront, as it does during the opening section of “Ruby Red.” That detail notwithstanding, the forty-one-minute debut album is as solid (if slightly more song-oriented) as any issued by Gizeh in recent memory.

That Bush connection doesn't take long to emerge, mere moments into the opening song, “Shade,” to be precise. Brentnall's voice has a hushed, even fragile character and slightly nasal quality shared by Bush, and Brentnall's quivers just as expressively as her better-known counterpart. That detail aside, however, the song itself impresses as a brooding pop song masquerading as a dramatic soundscape (or the other way around, if you wish). Even more effective is “Carve the Dirt,” a spacious setting that wraps her soft murmur in a narcotized swirl of keyboard melodies, thick synth atmospheres, and funereal percussive patterns, and with Brentnall's musings embedded within a downtempo flow comprised of skeletal percussive details and musty keyboard melodies, “Dust Hung Heavy” is emblematic of Shield Patterns' at-times bewitching style.

An elaborate set-piece such as “Ghost Words” argues that nothing happens by accident in the group's world: arrangements are methodically worked-out and the instrumental details handled with precision, and the listener comes away from the album appreciative of the careful balance the group strikes between vocal and instrumental elements. Having said that, there are moments when one does dominate the other, as when the muffled, bass-heavy blasts threaten to overpower the singing during the doom-laden “The Rule”; the later “Present State” dispenses with vocals to a large degree, and in doing so recasts Shield Patterns as a dauntingly heavy instrumental outfit. There's no question Contour Lines is a strong collection of artfully fashioned electronic songcraft: each piece is a compelling example of contemporary sound design, and the care with which the material has been crafted by Brentnall and Knox is evident from start to finish. Ideally, though, some greater degree of distance between Brentnall and Bush would go a long way towards helping Shield Patterns establish its own distinct sound.

May 2014