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Recent Ninja Tune signings Grasscut have an intriguing provenance, especially for a band that flit between the electronic and acoustic worlds with such little fanfare. This year’s early single ‘High Down’ revealed musicians with a careful ear for texture and atmosphere, unsurprising when you consider that one half of the duo is Andrew Phillips, an award-winning soundtrack composer. Their debut album 1 Inch / ½ Mile is filled with miniature shifts in mood and tiny inflections that seem to signify a great deal, and appropriately enough the sheer variety of ideas and sounds on display betrays the influence of the pioneering work of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.
Nowhere is that debt more obvious than on second track ‘Old Machines’, which arrives immediately after the schizophrenic explosion of ‘High Down’. It’s a lovely five minutes of organic electroacoustica, backed by a tiny synthesised orchestra of carefully placed clicks, static pops and canned strings. The following song ‘Meltwater’ fits its name, its repetitive chiming arpeggios effortlessly evocative of the delicate patter of light rain on leaves. Marcus O’Dair’s keyboards and double bass prove less obvious within the album’s mazelike structure, but provide cyclical movements in the background of each song that give the entire thing a hypnotic, dreamlike feel.
For the most part Phillips’ vocals sink so convincingly into Grasscut’s music that they become a part of the backdrop themselves, merely another instrument with which to play. It’s an enjoyable trick, leaving far more to the imagination than if his vocals were placed at the front of the mix. As an entire record this trait proves both an asset and a weakness; it’s easy to let 1 Inch / ½ Mile slip by almost too pleasantly, leaving little but agreeable traces of its rural pleasures in its wake. But then that’s perhaps the point: the album is written as an aural document of a psychogeographic trek across the southern UK’s countryside, and is supposed to work as a whole entity. It does largely; everything here has an attractively coherent quality that binds it together, from the spoken word samples that pepper each track like the melancholy chatter of Max Richter’s Songs From Before to the convincingly woody texture of its instrumentation. Despite its smooth flow, one particular moment stands out above all others. The muted opening to the ‘The Tin Man’ suddenly drops away to reveal the decaying voice of a woman singing into an ancient recording device, and the entire piece ebbs and flows beneath this spectral loop. It’s haunting and affecting in equal measure, and demands repeat listens from the moment her voice emerges, delicate and sad and displaced in time.
Towards its tail end 1 Inch / ½ Mile becomes more chaotic, a little sketchy in places, perhaps reflecting the exhaustion of a long hike. Even then though, there are periods of loveliness peppered around – a calming oasis of choral voices at the end of the demented ‘Muppet’, the doomy lo-fi of ‘1946’. Throughout its length there are fragments of the sublime that rear their heads for brief moments, and hint at the heights Grasscut may yet reach next. It’s certainly a soundtrack to something – perhaps far more than its creators intended – and is intensely visual in its make-up, though it’s hard at times to shake the feeling that 1 Inch / ½ Mile would be far more complete with an accompanying film to make its intent more explicit. Whilst a bold experiment and impressive in both concept and scope, there’s an occasional lack of focus on here that proves distracting at times.