Reports from the Small Space is the solo album debut by Sussex, England, artist Stephen Maddison. He began playing organ and synth in the ’80s, then switched to piano. He says his previous bands were “probably pretty crap,” but lots of fun. On his Bandcamp page for this album, Madison is careful to note that though he appreciates “the kindness of strangers and friends,” he in fact plays everything this time around.
Madison says that the concept of Reports from the Small Space “describes the screens, apps and microscopic electrical pulses through which our lives, fantasies and modes of being human are transacted. These small spaces are increasingly freighted by the pressure to be the truest and most authentic version of ourselves... which gives us wondrous opportunities for creativity, as well as manifesting new pressures and responsibilities. In a global pandemic, those small spaces got even smaller, and the pandemic finally gave me the kick up the arse I needed to finish these tracks.” Maddison loves “soundtracks, ’80s synths, musicals, jazz chords and big strings. I wanted to make music that evokes sensation, but without losing a sense of melody. No apologies for trying to find pretty tunes and crunchy harmonies to tell stories about my adventures in the small space.” Recording was accomplished on an old MacBook Pro using Logic with various plugins. Maddison did all the mixing and mastering on his own.
Given Maddison’s background as synthesizer player in the synth-crazy ’80s, it’s not surprising that his music feels much like that era, while simultaneously not sounding like it at all. It’s a unique hybrid of electronic, ambient, jazz, space and mellow soundtrack music, as if Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream slowed themselves way down and took stock of all their elements. It’s highly melodic music, quite lush at times, with catchy and ever-present rhythms, even when stripped down to just a kick drum sample. The acoustic piano is an especially lovely addition throughout. But Maddison’s mixes are truly unique, as I’ll explain.
“Curious Cabinet” is a curious amalgamation of tender piano pads, rising and falling synth effects, and a prominent beat with a kick drum sound that threatens to push your eyeballs out (if you’re wearing headphones). Maddison is not afraid to mix his percussive sounds right up front, way beyond where most artists might feel safe. As a listener you’re torn between enjoying the trebly, sometimes harsh melodies and following the thumping, evolving beats. The shorter tune “Godrevy” is something like lounge jazz from space. The melodies and synth pads are quite beautiful but busy and dynamic, and the drums and percussion again appear and disappear at will.
With “We Are (Mothers),” it bears repeating that nobody has recorded and mixed an album in quite this fashion. Again the piano and synths create immersive and creative patterns, while the metallic-sounding drums take a prominent position just left of center. It’s a stretch to say this tune resembles the theme from “Chariots Of Fire” because the arrangement is so unique, but that’s sort of the feeling you get. This is a definite favorite.
“Ursa” begins as a tentative, hushed minor key exercise, then develops a melody similar to the “Love Theme From Midnight Express.” Maddison’s musical writing feels both accessible and minimalist, while hiding its complexity in plain sight. “Draylon Vanilla” features drums that sound like a real kit along with the expected percussion samples for a more uptempo, major key excursion.
“Navigation” brings us back to the “Gepetto’s Workshop” style of percussion for another gentle track with quiet echos and tentative pads with some key patches sounding East Asian. Think “Blade Runner” if Deckard was a happy guy. I don’t know how Maddison keeps track of his melodies, as they are always sweet and evocative but keep changing and interweaving within themselves.
“Wandering Line” finds Maddison adding vocals, and surprise! He has a pleasing, Peter Gabriel-style voice, though his pitch does “wander” a little bit. I love the childhood memories he conjures up here: “It’s time for teddy bear tea parties now / Handbag, dressing up as Star Maidens… Licking the bowl in Nana’s kitchen.” Here his synths take on the sound of a lush orchestra.
“SuperVoc (Grimwade’s Syndrome)” references an affliction in Dr. Who among people who work with androids or robots, and come to feel they are surrounded by dead people. This seven-minute track is a final summing of Maddison’s futuristic movie-soundtrack style with the piano, synths and percussion elements we’ve come to expect, though the melodies here did not grab me quite as much.
In conclusion, I’ll say it one last time: this is electronic music quite different from anything that’s come before. Also, with so many indie musicians taking a slapdash approach, I have to commend Maddison’s striking cover art. Like his music, it’s deceptively simple but totally effective.
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