Eliza Rose’s 2022 single “B.O.T.A. (Baddest of Them All)” was a serious contender for last year’s song of the summer: a throwback house banger made for boisterous crowd sing-alongs, with generations of rave nostalgia baked into its Korg M1 organ bass. It was a genuine crossover smash, hitting No. 1 in the UK and yielding more than a quarter of a billion plays on Spotify. Rose is the lone featured vocalist on UK producer K-Lone’s new album Swells, but even her biggest fans might not recognize her here: On “With U,” a slow drip of woozy, after-hours mood music, the London singer’s sandy voice is smeared with echo and rendered largely indecipherable. K-Lone clearly isn’t cashing in on his guest’s clout; it’s as though he read the KLF’s hit-making handbook The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) and decided to do exactly the opposite of what its authors prescribe.
But for K-Lone, aka Wisdom Teeth label co-founder Josiah Gladwell, making an anti-pop song with a rising pop star seems perfectly in character. It’s not that he’s averse to busting loose—his EPs for the Sweet ’n’ Tasty label have trafficked in bubbly UK garage and rambunctious footwork and jungle—but the Brighton producer has historically favored subtler modes. His early EPs struck a ruminative balance between post-dubstep and dub techno; his debut album, 2020’s Cape Cira, was cool, brittle, and colorfully percussive, as though it had been performed on an array of pastel-hued icicles. Swells is more forceful than Cape Cira, with more prominent drums and two skippy, ebullient house jams. Still, its uptempo cuts are distinguished by their lightness of touch; the more laid-back ones ripple like reflecting pools, exquisitely rendered studies in purple, silver, and aquamarine.
Swells boasts a broader mix of moods and styles, but it’s held together by a palette that’s been carefully pared back to essentials. For drums, K-Lone defaults to trim, understated sounds—lumpy toms, hissing hi-hats, sandpapery snares—reminiscent of early analog drum machines like the Korg Mini Pops and Univox SR-55. His synths are warm and pliant, worlds away from the ruthlessly efficient sound design of contemporary club orthodoxy. The bleepy tones and major-key intervals of the opening “Saws” evoke the eerie glow of computer-music pioneer Laurie Spiegel’s 1980 album The Expanding Universe; the wheezy chords and pitch-bent G-funk leads of “Oddball” recall early James Blake EPs.
Two songs swing for the fences—at least, within the confines of the album’s verdant, well-tended landscaping. “Love Me a Little” deploys a springy, irrepressible bass melody over a bouncy house groove crafted from the same diminutive drum sounds as the rest of the album, with a few lilting bars of dancehall a cappella billowing above. The bassline is unusually buoyant—throw in reggae-inspired synth pings on the upbeats, and everything feels designed to go soaring upward as effortlessly as the balloon house in Pixar’s Up. “Gel,” the other relatively peak-time track, moves with similar dexterity. The drums are ever so slightly heftier, the bassline punchier; it comes across as a response to Floating Points’ early stabs at vintage boogie.
Some of the album’s best songs are its most idiosyncratic. In “Volcane,” contrapuntal synth arpeggios spin round and round over pattering, dubbed-out drums, gently tangling and drifting free once again; the syncopated groove is weirdly hard to parse—one moment it feels like a dembow cadence, the next it scans as triplets. It’s a nice example of just how heady even K-Lone simplest constructions can get. And “Strings,” the record’s melodic high point, arranges what sounds like backmasked electric guitar into a winsome little motorik jam, innocent as a children’s song. Even at their most easygoing, Swells’ songs evolve in sneaky, unpredictable ways. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they turn out to be something else entirely: turbulence in the guise of tranquility, bangers masquerading as lullabies. With some deft sleight-of-hand, K-Lone makes even the trickiest transmogrifications look like child’s play.