On Panda Hat, Raf Batchelor, the man behind Solo Project, wanted to make a record that was "moodier, more mature, and cooler" than 2012's Unwind. Unwind was a light and airy folk record, which is surprising, considering that Panda Hat is a late night electronica headphone journey, steeped in gothic ambiance and spectral, romantic R&B vocals. Is this musical ADD? An attempt to cash in on Trap beats and existential malaise?
It's actually rather appropriate, when you think about it, and listen closely. Moody electronica, recorded, mixed and mastered on a laptop using GarageBand and Logic, is the folk music of our times. While traditional musicians may have been writing songs about picking corn, and sailing away from your true love, Batchelor writes hedonistic, slo-mo disco about identity and information burn out.
While haters and critics may attack this kind of musical chameleoning as inauthenticity, accusing new producers of "just screwing around" or "not knowing what they're doing" (as was often seen in the free jazz era), it's a strength for Batchelor. It's easy for producers who have been making electronic music for a long time to get stuck in a rut, just going through the motions. On Panda Hat, Solo Project uncovers some genuinely unusual and surprising elements, like the weird and sinuous staccato synths on "Devotion,” or the sudden outbreak of woozy acoustic jazz guitar of "Slow It Down.”
Batchelor employs an "everything and the kitchen sink" approach on Panda Hat, where glockenspiels imperceptibly shift into pianos, and a million slivers of microsound are stitched together into jerky yet graceful percussive symphonies. Mostly, this works and makes for interesting music, full of surprises, with only the occasional faltering, like the two short instrumentals, "Evening Breeze" and "Sleepless,” which are okay, but don't need to be there.
The only other downside of Solo Project's solitary pursuits is the vocals are occasionally a bit flat, which an outside engineer would've probably caught and tried to get a better take. That, and Batchelor does his own mastering, which is never advised. Follow Batchelor's admonition and play this through good speakers or headphones.
Fans of the recent, gothic-tinged R&B, like James Blake and The Weeknd, will dig this record, as will fans of the early, experimental Grizzly Bear records, and traditional purveyors of darkside electronics, like Depeche Mode. The fact that Raf Batchelor is only 19 years old cinches the fact: this is a talent to watch out for and to keep an ear on!
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