Updated: Feb 2
Australian radio broadcaster and composer Tim Shiel puts his skills to good use in his latest album, Distractions One. We see him using his producing talents, as well as choice in collaborating partners, to create a work that’s both evocative and beautifully crafted in its ambient soundscapes and minimalist aesthetic.
According to Bandcamp, the album is about ‘missed connections, divided attentions and everyday existential angst’. This seems evident in the often scarce arrangements seen throughout, with Shiel creating the feel of a desolate wasteland through the bare electronic beats and often unsupported vocal lines, which at times sound flat and unemotional as if the singer is numb to all around them. There’s this general feeling of alienation, partly due to the reliance on haphazardly placed electronic sounds with which much of the texture is made up, changing constantly, the music rarely settling on one idea in particular. It’s quite similar to artists such as James Blake and the electronic wastelands on Radiohead’s Kid A.
And yet, whereas Blake combines this desolate production style with a more traditional songwriting format, Shiel doesn’t provide this same relief. Even the tracks that seem to have more in common with typical pop ballads (such as Sparrow or Together Again) have a more flowing form that focuses on the sounds being used instead of where they’re headed.
At times, this feature can be a fault. Shiel has admitted he is more a producer than a composer, and sometimes it seems that his impressive production can only do so much to hide the lack of substance behind the style. Tracks such as the house-inspired Call Me Back don’t really have any direction or dynamic range, just allowing the timbres and arrangements to develop as Shiel sees fit. There’s a feeling of ‘here’s this, and now this’ to a lot of it, which can feel arbitrary at times. However, songs such as Sparrow and Right in Front of You seem to be more carefully thought out, with the building of the texture or the main melody carrying it through a clear progression.
Shiel manages to keep a frosty edge to the music, avoiding it ever straying into a mainstream pop feel despite using aspects of soul, jazz and hip-hop. Whatever influences are used, it’s always done in line with this frosty aesthetic, such as through trapping the soulful vocals in Get Into Your Love within a thick reverb filled echo, or by isolating the trap-influenced beats, making them into numbed electronic motifs. The song Together Again is about as close as the record gets to having a pop song, but Shiel still feels the need to edit the piano, turning what could have been a balladry backing into a rhythmically distorted jittering motif, constantly upsetting the rhythm. Shiel never lets the music sink into how it feels it should go, but it's in this that it gains its distinctive character and presence.
Occasionally, the numbness gives way as the texture builds up or climaxes. ‘Right in Front of You’ builds its African sounding rhythms and jazz-influenced trumpet improvisations, reminiscent of some of the wilder textures in Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom (1974), the intensity pounding with the persistent rising and falling electronic motif, adding some windstorms to the landscape Shiel is constantly painting.
At times, some warmth comes through, and it turns from alienating to dream-like, with a soothing ambience and pleasing melodicism giving us some respite, as can be heard from Inside My Head. Call Me Back sees the gradual transformation of a spoken word text as it becomes part of the musical texture, a good example of how the flow of the music presents a dream-like feel, no musical idea being definitely one thing or another, neither solid nor fully materialised. It shows how the production can almost excuse the lack of material, almost making it into a strength for the album by turning what there is into something more mysterious and guarded.
The album’s electronic approach gives Shiel the perfect opportunity to make all sorts of sounds and effects come about, all of which are manipulated according to his strengths, creating some quite astounding textures and feelings throughout. Despite lacking the composing prowess of other artists who’ve dabbled in electronics (see Blake/Radiohead), you can’t deny this music some of its more enjoyable ideas, or the talent of the man behind it all, and that with the right material in his hands, he can do a lot of interesting stuff.