Today, we enjoy more variety of rock than a Blackpool gift shop.
Music has gone through a metamorphosis over the past couple of decades. Back in the 80s and 90s, music (and those who followed it) was more rigid than you probably remember. You had your punks, your New Romantics and your ravers but, nowadays, it’s more complicated. The stuff we hear on the radio is more EDM (Electronic Dance Music) or house than pop.
Despite this, it still takes something special to create a unique musical experience. Enter yllwshrk, a quirky quartet hailing from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, and the very definition of this new breed of transmuted music. And nowhere is this shown better than in their upcoming debut album, I AM ALADDIN.
The brains behind this operation is Ian Anderson, the band’s founder, composer and rhythm guitarist. When speaking to Anderson, I realise two things: the first is that he’s an incredibly humble, pleasant guy (“thank you for wanting to interview me,” he says, slightly flustered before we’d even begun). The second is that he’s definitely one who knows where he’s come from.
Originally a viola player for the London Contemporary Orchestra, Anderson formed yllwshrk after his first band fell apart following their inaugural gig. But don’t let the modern, vowel-less name fool you, Anderson explains how he didn’t intend to abandon his classical “open roots” and neither did his bandmates.
“Most of us are actually classical musicians,” he says proudly. “In a way, it really helps. We all have similar ways of thinking about music and rehearsing. Classical training is specific in its approach, which has its good sides and its bad sides. It’s not all incredible, but I think that’s really helped in the album and the recording.”
Two years in the making, I AM ALADDIN is a visceral fusion of alternative rock and classical music, but not in the way you might expect. Instead of a standard set of alt-rock songs with the odd violin thrown in, yllwshrk’s tracks all have a distinct identity. They are haunting, heavy and full of atmosphere, almost to the point of being uncomfortable to listen to, but not so much that you want to stop. The album hits the listener with this from the off through the opening track Smudge, an intense first number dominated by wailing strings which are only silenced by short injections of drums and guitar. It makes for a heightened listening experience, to say the least.
Such a surreal approach to music isn’t a one-band job. Although Anderson wrote all the songs, almost every track features a set of collaborators. “It started off with us wanting to make an album with just the five of us. Then we applied for funding from Creative Scotland and Arts Council England. We got the funding, which was amazing, but then because we had the money, we could plan a lot more and it just kept growing and growing. Almost by accident, we were asking other musicians that we really admired [to collaborate on the album].
“It just ended up as this massive, almost sprawling album of loads of different influences. London Contemporary Orchestera, the Maxwell Quartet, Andi Toma from Mouse on Mars. Almost every track features a collaboration with another artist. We couldn’t have done that if we didn’t have funding.”
While there are sinister elements and solemnity, I AM ALADDIN has its more upbeat moments too, particularly the third track Pyramids. One of yllwshrk’s three singles, Pyramids starts off as a slow, thumping rock composition (almost like a modern Bond theme) before launching into a smooth sax solo, courtesy of Irish-British jazz virtuoso Nick Roth.
Anderson’s appreciation for music in all forms shines through as he praises his collaborators and their influences on the album, even if it made tying the whole thing together a bit complicated. “When we started asking artists from different genres, they brought their own ideas and approaches. There’s a couple of jazz musicians, some electronic musicians and it started dragging the album into different areas of music. So, [it was quite a challenge] attempting to keep it sounding like one album.”
He adds, bashfully: “I’m not sure if we were able to achieve that, but that’s what we were aiming for.”
Bandmate Sam West’s eerie yet powerful omnipresent vocals have been lauded for giving the album a sense of consistency. Personally, the most intriguing part of this LP is its variety of themes and inspirations. Music with meaning is something I’ve always adored and it’s clear that Anderson and his band share the same sentiment. From the haunting premonitions of a social media technocracy in Smudge (‘come synthesise the world/come glisten like fool’s gold’) to the way young people are perceived in Millennials (‘we are bloody, not broken/ and stop your sneering/ it’s not us who sold the world for silver’), yllwshrk’s message and use of symbolism isn’t common in modern music, particularly in the alt-rock scene.
But if deep, meaningful subject matter isn’t your thing, I AM ALADDIN has more to offer. The album doesn’t shy away from the odd movie reference or two which is most evident in the penultimate track, and the album’s only pure rock anthem, PUKI.
So, what’s the most ambitious song on the album? While Anderson eventually settles for PUKI, he originally cited “twisted disco”, Arsenik, before changing his answer,
“With all the other songs, we could kind of see where they were going to go, even though they did change a lot during post-production. But with PUKI, we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to work, which is strange because it’s the most straightforward song. It was actually after listening to the Blade Runner soundtrack that everything started to fall into place. At the end of it, we had this sort of 80s, arpeggiated synthesiser stuff [inspired by] some of the sounds on the film’s soundtrack.”
For Anderson, a personal goal of his carefully curated, genre-bending type of music was to give his classical roots a new, modern soil in which to thrive, especially considering the unflattering picture many people have of orchestras and those who enjoy them. In August, the songs Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory were included in the Last Night of the Proms after weeks of controversy. The works were seen as controversial due to their ties to imperialism. While the BBC eventually made a u-turn following public outrage over the ban (a reduced orchestra played the anthems to an empty Albert Hall due to COVID-19 restrictions), the outrage still remains.
“Classical music has such a bad, stuffy persona,” says Anderson, referring to the debate over Rule, Britannia! “It is just so depressing that that’s the face of classical music.” A more critical tone creeps in. “We want to show that we’re not all…actually, none of us are like that. That’s the crazy thing. No classical musicians care about dressing up in tails and 18th century aristocratic stuff to perform. None of us care about stuff like that. It’s nothing to do with the music and I don’t know why any of that is still there. We love all genres of music. I hope [the album] makes some people listen to classical music again in a different light.”
This album is a celebration of music, both modern and traditional. It has no specific style or sound, but it harbours such an obvious appreciation and admiration for the genres it dips into and the artists it includes. When treated as their own separate sound, each of the nine tracks are atmospheric. But when weaved together as an album, they make for an immense listening experience that I have never experienced outside of a cinema.
If you think classical music is not for you, listen to this and you’re sure to have goosebumps. I AM ALADDIN is special and a real testament to the love that has been poured into its compilation. Look out for yllwshrk’s fin in the water very soon.
Images courtesy of yllwshrk.
I AM ALADDIN is now available to buy and stream. Listen here.