- Chain Reaction meets mid-20th-century minimalism with spectacular results.
- The cover of Beatrice Dillon's first album is an impossible image. Made by the German artist Thomas Ruff, it's a digitally rendered photogram: a virtual take on a photographic technique invented more than a century ago. The old-fashioned kind of photogram, like the kind made by the surrealist Man Ray, doesn't involve a camera. Instead, objects like scissors and wire coils are arranged on photo-sensitive paper and then exposed to light, creating an eerie inverted image of varying transparencies. But in Ruff's version, these objects aren't real—his ghostly 3D assemblages are designed inside the computer, floating in an airless vacuum. The designs are so complex that it can take 2,000 hours to render one image.
Ruff's virtual photogram, in all its hi-tech ghostliness, is a clever fit for Dillon's career-defining first album. The South London-born, Chelsea art school-trained musician is the kind of artist who thinks across mediums, pondering concepts, affects and textures as often as genre or functionality. Among her influences, Dillon cites the minimalism of visual artists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd alongside the crates of dub reggae and weird folk that she dug through in her former jobs as record shop clerk and radio researcher. On her cassettes and EPs for small labels like Where To Now? and Paralaxe Editions, Dillon has played around with stuttering syncopation, stunted echoes of dub, funk and jungle, and electroacoustic mismatches. "Play" is the operative word—the sternly titled Studies I-XVII For Samplers And Percussion, her 2015 collaboration with Rupert Clervaux, vibrated with a gleeful naivety. This lightness of touch is crucial to the genius of Workaround, which synthesizes all of Dillon's interests and techniques into an album of breathtaking clarity.
Reflecting Dillon's fondness for the gridded thinking of 20th-century minimalism, Workaround follows a few self-imposed rules. Every track ticks along at 150 BPM, a tempo that allows for lurching halftime rhythm play, as well as moments of technoid torque on an Errorsmith tip, like the jittery "Workaround Eight." (The White Cube-ready track titles feel almost comically austere.) Dillon also sets herself the challenge of rethinking dub, discarding some of its typical associations—the space echoes, the dread bass—for an approach that's more about space and absence. "What happens," she wondered in a recent interview, "if you take the guts out of the track?" For Dillon, that means a surgical evisceration of her tangled arrangements. In a particular microsecond, there may be just a single element sounding, or, more often than not, a drop of silence. Drums are gated, reverb is kept to a minimum. Imagine Dr Von Hagens doing Body Worlds in dub, a network of pulsating vessels, suspended in empty space.
Another complicating factor is Dillon's extensive use of guest musicians, including but not limited to: UK bhangra pioneer Kuljit Bhamra on the tabla, jazz collaborator Jonny Lam on pedal steel guitar, Senegalese kora player Kadialy Kouyaté, avant-garde cellist Lucy Railton and techno operators Batu, Untold and Laurel Halo. Their contributions are diced and sliced, slotted into unexpected crevices, or deleted to open up the space again, leaving behind a shadowy lattice of sounds and imprints. Bhamra's tabla crops up often, adding a scoop of bass or a high-pitched tang to Dillon's super-syncopated rhythms. Every drum hit feels sandblasted down to its barest expression, bone-dry and incessant. The breadth of Dillon's record collection is obvious, but the clearest reference points include the tough thwack of modern UK bass, the IDM lineage from Mark Fell through to Rian Treanor, and the brainiac systems music of Calum Gunn.
As a result, there's a lot going on. "Workaround Two" feels sunny and bright. Peppered with Verity Susman's saxophone squiggles and the flatly enigmatic voice of Laurel Halo, it's a groovy companion to the swinging rhythms of Halo's 2017 album, Dust. "Workaround Three" is more difficult, with cello scraping at the edges of the spartan percussion. Other tracks nod to Dillon's dub and bass interests. "Workaround Four" rides on a thunderbolt of heavy bass, with synth shimmers and reggae-thinking organ stabs over the top. "Square Fifths" has a dub-infused bassline but throws in an unexpected drop midway through. "Clouds Strum" imagines a vacuum-packed Basic Channel track, airless and taut. At one point the whole motion is rudely interrupted by a flurry of pizzicato strings, leaving a moment of bashful silence in the busy conversation.
Like Ruff's photogram, there's a paradox at play on Workaround. Dillon's sound fragments seem to come together as shapes and structures, moving along vectors or in geometrical outcroppings. But there's no air in here, no way of gauging the space we've found ourselves in. These electroacoustic arrays would surely be impossible to recreate in the real world. On paper, Workaround could seem like a rather dry document, an eggheaded exercise in hard compositional labour and smarty-pants reference points. When a record is so dazzlingly abstract (or abstractly dazzling), it seems harder to interpret in emotional terms, too. But like LeWitt and his primary-coloured paint brushes, or Dan Flavin and his store cupboard of strip lights, Dillon isn't offering us a feeling so much as giving us a space in which to feel. And like those mid-20th-century minimalists, Dillon understands that limitations are strategic. Playing by the rules doesn't mean tying yourself down—this time, she's achieved lift-off.
01. Workaround One
02. Workaround Two
03. Workaround Three
04. Workaround Four
05. Workaround Five
06. Clouds Strum
07. Workaround Six
08. Workaround Seven
09. Workaround Eight
10. Workaround Nine
11. Square Fifths
12. Workaround Bass
14. Workaround Ten