Sparks has been a few years coming, as most Imogen Heap albums do, yet now that it’s here it feels like we’ve had it for quite a while. Imogen’s sharing of almost all of the album prior to launch may have helped with the individual sales of songs but what it has done is taken the element of surprise away from the album itself. That can be good or bad depending on your view – what my view is – is that the album itself is a phenomenal work of artistry.
Opening with the grower “You Know Where to Find Me” we have the underpinning of a piano track as Imogen’s expressive vocals fluctuate from low murmurs to layered auras that envelope you as the hollow drums and synths blend into the track that tone shifts from a beautiful track to one of a strong undercurrent of anger and rage. It all comes to a crescendo and then has a Georges piano outro that fades into a dripping of ivories. “Entanglement” follows and pulls us across to the more bombastic synth work that Imogen has been famed for. Reversed synths that play on your ears and discordant percussive twangs plink behind a simple track that reminds me of her Frou Frou days. It’s a celebration of being with your loved one and you can touch the warmth coming through the speakers as the voice, keyboards and string arrangements combine to convey the heartfelt number. “The Listening Chair” is a marvellous piece of deranged genius. Taking a minute for each seven years of her life, Imogen essentially creates five mini songs to showcase each era. Starting off playful and childlike, it switches to hope and wonderment to confusion and the workmanlike plod of daily work slogs. One of the best things about it for someone of the same age, is the constant retro loving in the background as Heap takes all the things she loved as a child and turns them into backing vocals. Not enough songs have Cola Cubes in them. The track is a Jekyll and Hyde as it switches movements but it works perfectly as it reaches a frenzied conclusion which implies not all has been well in Imogen’s world in the recent seven years.
“Cycle Song” is a short soundtrack piece that takes tons of sound samples from a trip to Bhutan and weave them into a trance like hedonism. It’s pop art at its highest form and dips into the Asian elements of the album that crop up throughout. It also features a trippy time signature and I could listen to it on a loop for ages. It’s dramatic end allows the collaboration with Deadmau5 on “Telemiscommunications” to be more effective with its sparse arrangement of soft piano chords and the minimum of blips and pops for a drum beat. It’s lack of layers show Deadmau5’s stripped back approach and it stands out on the album because of it. “Lifeline” in stark contrast could not be more densely packed with layers of sounds sent in from fans and listeners. This track was a collaboration with fans on word maps and sound samples and it showcases Heap’s creative flair for being able to use the most mundane sounds to create a magical soundscape.
“Neglected Space” is primarily a voice track. Imogen’s spoken word leads the introduction to the track which creates an atmosphere around it – an ethereal one. Around half way through the music begins to build into an arrangement that explodes into an angst filled electronic sludge. It’s like a five-minute internal brain conversation with yourself and its a fascinating piece that may not get the attention it deserves around more melodic and instant tracks. Following up with the powerful and dramatic “Minds Without Fear”, I think this is my joint favourite track along with the penultimate track on the album. There’s a pulse with the Indian percussion and instrumentation that creates a real crowd stomper that is missing from the rest of the album. The collaboration with Vishal Shekhar works perfectly as they compliment each other’s voices and give each other room to get into the groove and the middle eight is the biggest explosive section to great your heart racing that the album provides. “Me the Machine” which was inspired by Imogen’s gloves that allow her to make music by flinging her mits about is a track that keeps twisting the frequencies of synths and is a hark back to the last decade of her music. Melodic and mid tempo, it’s the most straight forward track of the album and an easy place for pop lovers to start.
“Run Time” is the real pop diva though. Its got an infectious pop hook, a great beat and a great chorus. However what elevates the track to a new level is the excellent final two minutes where the track slows down to a dream like crawl before zipping back into one of only two fast tempo section on the album. It’s this albums Tidal and the tempo change ups really make the track what it is. Amazing. “Climb To Sakteng” on the flip side is a divine piece of piano, Bhutan styled male vocals and Imogen adding the gentlest of additional vocals. She takes backstage in this emotive piece that ranks up their as one of the most tender pieces of music she has ever written. “The Beast” is a darker track with an interesting chord structure and lots of plucked instruments hiding behind some excellent blended vocal and string arrangements where you can’t tell where the string end and the voice begins. It’s a track that’s perfectly suited to a YouTube clip montage! “Xizi She Knows” is a fantastic track that builds and builds on its initial structure and focuses on making sure you grow whilst making sure you keep what makes you great and unique to your roots. That message is very symbolic to the album itself as it pulls Heap’s music in new directions whilst still maintaining her piano, keyboard and vocal core safe. I love this track as it gets quite visceral towards the end and shows the fire I loved from her début iMegaphone. The album closes with the 360 degree walk-around that is “Propeller Seeds” which has a simple and beautiful melody that is backed throughout by a roaming microphone that backs up the lyrics being spoken about. There’s talking, crackling firewood, a jazz bar, a shower, a disco – lots of people eating dinner – it’s a genius idea that flows seamlessly and that’s testament to Heap’s prowess at production.
Put frankly, Sparks is a revelation. It continues to mark Imogen Heap as a fore runner in music technology and the new ways we can make music and doesn’t scrimp on making the music damn amazing at the same time. Mission accomplished!