Kelly Lee Owens Soothes and Disorients on LP.8

Music Reviews Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens Soothes and Disorients on LP.8

For those in the know, Welsh electronic musician Kelly Lee Owens has gained a reputation as someone who seemingly has the world of pop music in the palm of her hand. As she has proven with her first two releases—her 2017 self-titled album and 2020’s Inner Song—she is one of the few artists who come along every few years or so who have the confidence and credibility to welcome people into the avant-garde music fold with just the right of amount of crowd-pleasing accessibility. Björk had done it in the past, and FKA Twigs and Grimes picked up that torch to some degree later on. These artists all took elements of underground subcultures and delivered them with such bravado that the mainstream couldn’t help but make their way into the tent to learn more. It has seemed as though she is edging ever closer to that status, as she offered her skills in creating the anthemic soundtrack to the 2023 Women’s World Cup. With Owens’ third album LP.8, fans of her work were curious to see if she would venture further into the realms of the danceable, yet subversive pop of Inner Song, or draw us further into a world of experimentation not yet explored in the mainstream.

Like many musicians, Owens was unable to tour behind her exuberant sophomore album Inner Song after its release in 2020. Refusing to let a worldwide pandemic stifle her creativity, she decided to head to Oslo to record. There, she linked up with renowned avant-garde noise musician—and her Smalltown Supersound label-mate—Lasse Marhaug, who’s worked with esteemed peers in the field like Merzbow and Sunn O))). Looking to create music that bridged the gap between Throbbing Gristle and Enya, Marhaug was seemingly a perfect pairing for Owens. His work producing albums for the experimental-pop artist Jenny Hval used a similar palette, resulting in some of her most exciting and unpredictable work. Mixing Owens’ supernatural ability to build walls of dense hooks through fat, minimal techno tracks with Marhaug’s ear for dissonance could perhaps create a unique space for both artists.

The finished project was in fact such a departure from her first two records that Owens gave it the title LP.8 to suggest that it belonged to a different musical world entirely. With the eerie spray-paint-can rhythms and wobbly bass tones of the first track “Release,” she lulls the listener into the album with no on-ramp to prepare for the dark tension that follows. As she repeats the song’s title over and over throughout its duration, there is little hope that she will provide much “release” musically as the track flows directly into the equally caustic “Voice.”

Next up is the amorphous eight-minute “Anadlu.” The Welsh word means “to breathe,” and as the song progresses from a dark rumble to bright and uplifting synth passages, it evokes the clarity one finally gets nailing meditative breathing exercises after numerous failed attempts. From there on, Owens really takes the listener into unexpected territory, as the middle section of the album trades in its introductory industrial textures for comforting washes of ambient and drone compositions. Unlike in the past, she doesn’t feel the need to let herself be known with lyrical narratives. Instead, she builds gorgeous vocal harmonies on songs like “S.O 2”—a sequel to the opening track of her debut—and “Olga” that feel like a much-needed exhale, removed from the fuckery outside the studio walls.

The album takes a slight intermission, stripping away all electronics with the ruminative solo piano number “Nana Piano.” Found sounds and field recordings make their way onto the recording in a way way to the work Australian electronic musician Penelope Trappes. Birds chirp in the distance as the notes of the piano decay to remind you there’s a natural world outside of the sometimes brutal and otherworldly textures of the album. Next, “Quickening” finds Owens delivering a spoken-word passage over sparse hits of bells and skittering, low-toned drones. She quotes choreographer Martha Graham, explaining that there is an energy within each of us that is not found anywhere else within the universe and it’s our duty to surrender to that power. “It will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost,” she says bluntly. “It’s not your business to determine how good it is / Nor how valuable / Nor how it compares to others’ expressions / Your business is to keep it yours / Clearly, and directly / To keep the channel open.” On the album’s most beautiful and gratifyingly pop-leaning song “One,” she reaffirms this message, singing, “You are the world you create,” and later, “You are the one you’ve been waiting for.”

Final track “Sonic 8” picks up the same tension the album began with, as the song is built around a persistent one-note synth blast that sounds like plastic ribbons being blown by a hair dryer on its most intense setting. Loud, bombarding bass tones and icy percussive elements lend unsettling colors to the song as its repetitive nature mesmerizes you into thinking it deviates more from its foundation than it does. It’s a fitting backdrop for the message that Owens chooses to convey on the track. She speaks as plainly and directly as she has on the rest of the album, stripping away any poetry that could confuse things. “This is an emergency / This is a wake up call,” she says, with the type of laser-beam conviction that’s impossible to wiggle away from. She asserts that it’s all “divide and conquer,” and that we as people are only strong when we collectively set our sights on the evils of this world. It’s a cliche, but she knows that it needs to be reinforced. “You’re tired / I’m tired / We wan’t to be free together / None of us are free unless we are together,” she commands, like she is leading a team of frightened citizens trying to lift a car off a hit pedestrian.

Even though LP.8 is a triumph in tone, it’s disappointing to listen to a record that feels as though Owens was self-conscious knowing the accessibility of the releases that came before it. On Inner Song, it felt as though there was no sense of apprehension in her creativity, as songs embraced elements of glittery pop and avant-garde with equal admiration. That kind of we’re all on the same team enthusiasm and lack of hesitancy to meld these two worlds is what made Owens such an exciting talent on her first two releases. But on the other hand, it would be foolish not to chase the muse, and this album is definitely born from the bleak times in which it was created. The music mimics the desolate and hopeless feeling of a world of possibility being shuttered over night without any warning. Why pretend there is a middle ground?

Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.

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