When I reviewed Here We Go Magic’s rather brilliant A Different Ship for The Quietus a few months back, I commented on how much of that album’s overall feel could be attributed to the studio expertise of its producer Nigel Godrich, and how – 15 years on from his work on Radiohead’s classic OK Computer – his distinctive sonic sheen remains as unique as a fingerprint. That glassy, aquatic sound, and the claustrophobic, otherworldly atmosphere it creates, engulfs the eponymous debut from Ultraista, Godrich’s second venture as a musician (after his role in the Thom Yorke-led “supergroup” Atoms For Peace), but it is just one element of a three-way battle for the listener’s attention that rages throughout the album, along with the subtly spectacular drumming of former Beck/ Smashing Pumpkins/ REM sticksman Joey Waronker and the cool-as-ice vocals of 24 year-old singer and artist Laura Bettinson. Having first caught Godrich’s ear as the creative force behind unfortunately-named indie-electro popstrels Dimbleby & Capper, the latter has been tipped for solo success recently with her flamboyantly-costumed Femme project, but instead of taking centre-stage here she seems content glinting from the shadows, being multi-tracked and looped, her bright but deadpan voice in call-and-response discourse with itself, scattered like a spotlight bouncing off a mirrorball. Decidedly more feminine than a powerhouse such as Florence but not as girlish as the likes of Ellie Goulding (older fans may find themselves reminded of Sarah Blackwood of Britpop also-rans Dubstar, or Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell), Bettinson’s tone is perfectly suited to the lyrical mix of slightly surreal conversational snippets, random observations and mantra-like repetition: “You’ve grown your smile/ To the side of your mouth” she remarks on “Our Song”, whilst “Bad Insect” (below) hinges on her repeated refusals to sing “unless somebody’s holding on”. It’s obvious Bettinson has star quality to spare, and it’s to her credit that she understands when not to upstage her bandmates, something that Waronker – unintentionally, bless him – seems to find difficult. More so than Bettinson’s vocals or Godrich’s synths, Waronker’s drumming drives Ultraista, and even though there’s nary a dramatic break or bombastic solo in sight it’s hard not to see his relentlessly shifting rhythmic pulse as a main focal point. If there were ever a case for drums as a lead instrument this is it: technically impressive playing that you can feel in your gut, that performs the most basic of tasks – keeping time – whilst at the same time showcasing a mesmerising virtuoso talent. Clearly influenced by Can and Afrobeat, Waronker evokes the likes of Jaki Liebezeit (especially on “Easier” and “Wash It Over”) and Tony Allen (“Our Song”) without resorting to merely playing copycat, and even manages to decorate more straightforward, hip hop-hued beats (“Gold Dayzz”, “Strange Formula”) with jazzy fills that push the tracks in a different direction entirely. But despite Waronker’s scene-stealing performances, Godrich is the glue that holds the album together; be it via the massed, surging synths that buzz angrily like a Raid-stunned wasp flying around looking for someone to sting on its way out, or the electronic production know-how that he brings to the likes of “Smalltalk” and the jittery, Atoms-esque “Static Light“, the producer’s trademark technique – rock music by way of modems and pixels, intimate yet disconnected – is the third leg that keeps this tripod standing. As a studio presence, Godrich has already proven time and again that his skills are unparalleled; here he is also revealed as a great mentor and a selfless collaborator. Even taking into account the trio’s combined pedigrees, Ultraista is an astounding debut; Godrich, Waronker and Bettinson have taken a whole world of high hopes and expectations and exceeded them in dazzling fashion.
Ultraista is out October 1 digitally via Temporary Residence and is streaming now over at NPR