It’s been a busy few years for Mica Levi and Oliver Coates. Levi, following her career-defining score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, released her third album with The Shapes, Good Sad Happy Bad, composed the score for Pablo Larrain’s forthcoming Jackie Onassis biopic, and released two excellent records on Demdike Stare’s DDS label. Coates, on the other hand, has programmed a series of performances at London’s Southbank Centre under the banner DEEP∞MINIMALISM, worked with the London Contemporary Orchestra on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and released a solo album, the ebullient Upstepping. On Remain Calm, the two artists join together for a charmingly low-stakes series of mood pieces, which shuffle and shamble, coaxed along by pastoral textures, vaporous ambience, and rich melodies, never quite making contact with solid ground.
The album emerged out of an impromptu jam on Levi’s NTS show and retains this improvisational mien, its pieces light and exploratory, flowing over the listener like a warm gush of air, protean and diaphanous. Levi’s electronics and Coates’s cello move easily from background to foreground, intertwining organically, each using the other’s presence as jumping-off points for melody and ambience. The songs veer between fitful, flighty works, which shudder and twitch as their sonic materials are chopped and screwed, and soothing constructions, whose elongated chords soothe like cooling balms for tired brows. Muted traces of club forms appear — a techno pulse animating “Bless Our Toes,” a two-step beat fighting with Levi’s nauseous tones on “Dragon in the Mist” — but they always act as a supplement, something to be dissolved. By juxtaposing Levi’s chopped samples and watery ambience against Coates’s languid cello drones, the album seems to operate across several temporalities simultaneously. It hedges the linear against the circular, club music’s propulsion against ambient’s diffusion, creating a fractal, divergent sound that glides across half-recognizable structures, alighting and departing, its destination indefinitely postponed.
In braiding its melodic and textural elements together, and subjecting them to processes of elongation and concatenation, Remain Calm charts vast swathes of emotion. On the plangent “I’ll Keep Going,” a cello wails ominously, seesawing between dolorous and plaintive tones, as repetitive crashes of drum, piano, and voice are lanced through it. The piece feels enervated, bringing to mind Andy Stott’s “knackered house” and Yves Tumor’s mournful minimalism, each layer forming a new weight that gradually bears down on its skeletal beat. “Mob of Waters” operates in a different register entirely, its shimmering drone, cello plucks, and sampled vocal providing a sense of uplift, relief, and care. By capturing the moment at which an emotion flares most brightly, Remain Calm exposes the listener to instances of pure affect, in all their rawness and vitality. It then proceeds to quantize these emotions, shaping them into discrete objects before agglomerating them into layered tapestries, chains of sound and mood, suffusing the entire album with feeling. Despite its sub-30 minute run-time, Remain Calm packs a punch.