Review : Djrum – ‘Portrait with Firewood’ (R&S)

Sometimes when a producer steps out of their comfort zone they end up making some of their best work, or reveal that they are capable of creating something entirely different than they have before. Over the course of fifteen releases Felix Manuel – aka Djrum – has explored the spectrum of UK bass-leaning music. Between his early dubstep on Smokin’ Sessions to his breaks-infused techno on a more recent Ilian Tape EP, he’s touched upon everything from ambient to jungle, deftly fusing together disparate genres in his productions, resulting in a sound that is instantly recognizable. ‘Portrait with Firewood’ (his highly anticipated forthcoming album on Belgian institution R&S) draws together his established sound at its finest, yet is also a leap into the unknown for Manuel.

Classically trained as a jazz pianist, the release marks the first time that he has used his childhood instrument as a core starting point for production; much of his previous work has been crafted around samples. Previously he had been reluctant to record his piano playing for fans to hear, but this leap of faith has given ‘Portrait with Firewood’ a level of intimacy that we haven’t seen before with Djrum. It is his most personal body of work to date, with the combination of acoustic and electronic sounds vividly capturing a range of feelings he experienced in an emotionally turbulent 2017.

The album ebbs and flows in intensity, with more subdued, predominantly acoustic arrangements leading into heavier, drum-laden tracks. One of the most remarkable things about this release is the ease with which the tracks flow into each other. Nothing is produced in isolation, and there is continuity with previous releases: we can see this in how ‘Showreel Pt. 3′ leads on musically from tracks in the ‘Broken Glass Arch’ EP, his first record on R&S, and between moments on this album with ‘Creature Pt. 1’ and ‘Creature Pt.2.’ Whilst electronic music does not always lend itself to the form of an album, Djrum’s ability to create narratives that traverse multiple tracks make his work particularly suited to the long play format. This trait is one of his biggest strengths as a producer, lending the album focus and cohesion.

It opens and closes with tracks that layer electronic atmospheres, with improvisations from Djrum on piano and Zosia Jagodzinska on cello. The first track, ‘Unblocked’, reflects the introspection of the release and aptly lays the foundations for what is to come. Indeed, some of the most engaging moments on the album are when Manuel chops together these acoustic improvisations. Wishing to capture the “inherent melancholy in beauty in all its impermanence and fragility,” this feeling of pathos can be discerned in ‘Creature Pt. 1.’ On this track he slices together excerpts of Jagodzinska’s cello arrangements, adding layers of reverb.

That’s not to say Djrum has abandoned the use of samples on this release, and fans who have been following his work since the start will still find much to love here. ‘Water Rising’ will sound familiar, with collaborator Lola Empire’s drawling vocals interspersed amongst D’n’B drum programming and piano chords. Like much of his previous work, individual samples are used for the smallest of flourishes, whether it be a hi hat or a stab, and are a testament to Manuel’s unflinching attention to detail.

One of the highlights of the album is ‘Showreel Pt.3,’ where Djrum ramps up the intensity. Opening as an ambient track with a spoken word sample, a rapid 4×4 kick emerges from the hazy pads and the track descends into a polyrhythmic techno workout that keeps changing direction. Despite the chaos, there remains an inherent layer of atmosphere with Empire’s vocals filtered over the percussion. Indeed, the charm and originality of Djrum’s harder material lies in its softer core.

On ‘Sex’ you experience Djrum’s ability to combine different sonic ideas into a single track. It starts with an ominous synth line that emanates intensity and quickly opens to unleash breaks, chattering hi hats, Empire’s sultry melodies and piano riffs into the mix. This track reflects the confidence with which Djrum can weave together unexpected elements and is reflective of the album as a whole. With its combination of emotive acoustic elements and harder drum programming, ‘Portrait with Firewood’ reveals Djrum at his most honest and creative. It’s a new high in an already glowing discography, and is Djrum’s most mature work to date.

Portrait with Firewood is out on August 17th on R&S.

Pre-order it here.

Words:  Jess Cohen.

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