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LA Priest – GENE

Sam Eastgate is an artist shrouded in mystery. In a world that demands accessibility, he reserves a remoteness from the Internet, opting instead for an isolated existence in the UK. It’s this distance from discussing his art that surrounds his second solo LP, GENE with anticipation. Invitingly opening with some of his most entertaining works of woozy pop-funk, Eastgate pushes further into abstract explorations of avant-garde electronica, making for an ethereal listen – albeit a challenging one.

After kicking off his career with Lake of The Pier in 2004, Eastgate’s electro-rock four-piece abruptly disbanded six years later just as they began breaking ground. Withdrawing from online activity, the Englishman began working on side-projects and producing his debut solo LP Inji, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim for its revitalising take on electronic alt-pop. Five years have since passed, during which Eastgate formed Soft Hair with Connan Mockasin whilst also beginning work on his sophomore solo record. Crafting his own drum machine from scratch, after which the album is dubbed, GENE sees Eastgate fully realise his vision of cosmic pop and dark, ambient electronica.

“Beginning” is both a pragmatic and bright place to start. Sequenced synth loops bring melodic hooks that also syncopate with the GENE machine to create catchy rhythms on the most easily enjoyable song of the record. It’s a splendidly woozy alt-pop bop coloured with cartoony guitar riffs and layered falsetto vocals whose lyrics bear an ambiguous accessibility; “And if you fall in love before listening to the chorus you’re a forty five four star high”.

There’s another inviting wave of psychedelia that intros “Rubber Sky” that subverts into a pounding meld of sub-bass and kick. Chopped up samples of the opening guitar add rhythm and harmony and while everything remains propulsive, there’s a low-key reassignment to anxiety, “Where the love is surrounding, say what you want but don’t leave me, on my own”, that inhibits over-embellishment.

“What Moves” continues the quirk with processed guitars paired with auto-tuned vocals to establish Eastgate’s idiosyncratic take on funk. The track lopes along like a wobbly walk home from the club on a Sunday morning, before an accomplished guitar solo takes things to a dizzying high. The drum pattern segues seamlessly into “Peace Lily”, which acts as an extended conclusion and interlude to its predecessor. Song-chaining is well incorporated across the record to help tie often overtly opposing styles.

Our first glimpse at something a little more haunting arrives in the form of “Open My Eyes”. There’s a fable quality to the folk ballad through the fingerpicked guitar and lilting vocals, however it’s the looming synth that gives everything a pervasive dread. Lyrics enhance the evil symbolism, “We’d live on the ground if it made us all level, how long will we dig before meeting the devil”, as the synth opens its cutoff through each chorus to elevate the drama of each passage.

“Sudden Thing” pushes further through the looking glass with another mournful ballad that’s beautifully delicate and dour. The filtered slide guitar conveys the setting of a Spaghetti Western as the track trods along like a defeated wanderer through the desert. Another ominous synth underpins the arrangement that speaks further of devils and existential qualms, “Beat up my own life, to sit by the fireside”.

Cleansing raindrops help transition into “Monochrome”, which continues the oppressive ambience as ritualistic tympanic drums hide the growl of a synth. This then paves the way for a razor-sharp sawtooth synth and vivid percussion that all bears a semblance to Radiohead’s “Myxomatosis” (2003) – if it were to appear on King of Limbs (2011). Instances of respite from the menacing gloom arrive where Eastgate sings with uplifting angelic theatricality in a collision of contrast.

Briefly reverting back to some funk-infused styling, “What Do You See” maintains a sense of oddity with atypical synth input. There’s a strained falsetto that runs through it all that feels disturbing in the minimalist verses but stylish in the prime groove. Producer Erol Alkan has his hands all over this vibrant composition.

The record’s final straight includes songs deeply grounded in Thom Yorke’s solo likeness. “Kissing of the Weeds” derives from the clash of organic and electronic elements via a serenade of acoustic guitar played over scratchy percussive samples. “Black Smoke” is more explorative, opening with bubbly loops and a cascading synth that flies by. A mid-section séance of chiming chords sedates before building into a climax of jazz drum fills that go against the grain of expectation. Whilst its taciturn movements between passages feel difficult to penetrate initially, re-listens are rewarding for the sheer density and diversity of the instrumentation.

Saving the most peculiar for last, “Ain’t No Love Affair” closes the LP. There’s tribal chants and rhythms that precede the abrupt entry of crunching, pitch-shifted guitars which throw things in another dissonant direction. The entire back-half is a collection of feedback and frequency modulations that make the closing minutes feel vast and empty with respect to the rest of the record. Endeavouring to be meditative and mystical, the song as a whole is a bridge too far into disjointedness.

LA Priest’s latest LP is very much a can of worms. Enticing you in with irresistibly twisted pop-funk tunes, it’s not long before you feel yourself sucked into Eastgate’s wormhole of darker themes and ambient arrangements. With more oddities than Inji and a home-made drum machine that helps fully realise his artistic intention, GENE should be viewed as a success in how it both satisfies and challenges the listener.

GENE is released Friday 5th June via Domino Recording Co.