Rafiq Bhatia has already proven his fondness for experimentation as a member of synth-rock trio Son Lux. But on his third solo album, Breaking English, Bhatia pushes himself even further, crafting nine instrumentals that pull from a grab bag of influences and emotions.
It’s a challenging listen. “Olduvai I – Minarets” evokes the grim doom of an early Dracula film, and the icy string interlude “Olduvai II – We Are Humans, With Blood In Our Veins,” sounds like Bernard Herrmann run amok. Both songs are dense soundscapes that only make sense when considered as two halves of a whole. It isn’t just that each song covers a significantly different stretch of musical topography; throughout English, Bhatia seems explores on a single song the kind of disparate musical ideas that many artists would unpack over the course of an album. Case in point: “Hoods Up,” his tribute to Trayvon Martin which benefits from the artist’s more-is-more aesthetic, weaving together spikes-out jazz riffs, hip-hop beats, and strings. These elements fuse in the track’s noisy crescendo, which seems to suggest the hopelessness, confusion, and anger evoked by the teenager’s senseless death.
But the album is not without moments of joy. Folk meditation “A Love That’s True” plays it light, its clutch of cords repeated until encroaching reverb forces a sonic decomposition. “The Overview Effect” leans on the self-taught producer’s programming skills, introducing organic samples to create a sense of musique concrete alongside inorganic beats. But it’s the title track where Bhatia most successfully ties together his detailed vision. Over the course of six minutes, gospel-lite vocal coos are knitted together with a gentle guitar line, their amble interrupted with a surprise mid-song burst of percussion. Like communicating through an unfamiliar language, Breaking English is often less about easily-understood messages, and more about the passion it takes to push through the barriers that separate us. For many, it’s a place of confusion. But for Bhatia, chaos is just a starting point.