Howes’ debut album infuses swirling soundscapes, muted beats and nebulous bass into 43 minutes of forward-thinking electronic music.
'I used to struggle making stuff on a computer, but there's nothing the computer gives back' explains John Howes; 'I started making my own software to make tracks on, then I got into modular stuff and building my own bits of proper kit'. This is the genesis of John Howes aka Howes’ sound. 'I wanted to have a setup that works like my head and the only way to do it was to start making these bits myself'. After hearing Howes’ impressive debut, it all starts to make more sense.
3.5 Degrees imbues swirling soundscapes to muted beats and nebulous bass. But this isn’t just a Brian Eno rehash for 201: there's plenty of substance bubbling just below its gaseous surface. At times it conjures up Warp’s golden age, along with pioneers from a truly analogue era: Vangelis' RCA period meets Steve Reich. Free flowing soundscapes that are under pinned by simple, yet evocative melodies. It’s the melodies that make you come back to album, as they drift just below the surface, never really showing themselves fully until they are ready to be unveiled.
Motifs reoccur throughout, some vanishing for a few bars, some for a few tracks, only to reappear, in new and lurid variations. Droney chimes, vaporous sounding synths cohabit with exquisite gems of free form electronica showcase Howes' ability to create something that is vibrant, full of movement, as well as having density of steam.
Opener ‘Concagnis’ sounds like the engaged tone on a phone. This, coupled, with woozy atonal sounds and chimes gives the listener a sense of unbalance and unease. However this is the perfect start to 3.5 Degrees. From the opening moments you realise this isn’t a standard electronic/dance album. There are no deep basslines or hard breakbeats, instead everything is slightly claustrophobic and murky.
‘Source 000535’ follows this trend, as the opening motif is almost unchanged throughout its duration. The background music laconically drifts and floats around the motif, and this is what gives it its movement and flux. ‘Zeroset’ sounds like it’s sampled the original videogame Pong. While there isn’t a lot going on, musically speaking, culturally speaking it's incredibly diverse. Transposing the blips into what sounds like factory machinery, is an interesting piece of composition and production. This juxtaposition of old and new, of analogue and digital is the songs really master stroke. ‘OYC’ has a simple drone motif that is reminiscent of ‘Source 000535’ in tone and texture. While the progression is unchanging, for the most part, the billowing synths help draw you attention away from it by constantly changing and mutating their passage. What initially feels stagnant, ends up being expansive and one of the standout moments on the album.
On lead single ‘Overveen' the beat and bass keep the song grounded, while chimes and synths dart in and out of the mix, creating movement and texture, that envelopes the listener in an all-encompassing hazy foggy cocoon until its searing outro removes all the mist and you see the track for what it is: five and a half minutes of pure filth. The album closes with ‘MP CD 13’. It shares elements with ‘Concagnis’, which makes the album feel like a constant round. Even when it ends, it’s actually only just beginning. These clever production techniques accentuate the album and make sure you are paying attention, rather than just casually listening.
'Most modern electronic music to me is too safe in terms of ambition, sound design and intention,' Howes recently said, and after listening to 3.5 Degrees you can certainly see he hasn’t played it safe. Howes could easily have made an album full of massive bangers, and that would have been fine, but instead he’s swerved away from conventional production methods and currently trending genres to create something far more interesting and beguiling.
7Nick Roseblade's Score