“Plastic soul” is a disparaging term originally used to describe white – and usually British – musicians who had co-opted American soul and R&B into their own, well…more plasticine endeavors. The term hasn’t really stuck – once parochial genres being as nebulous and intermingling as they are – but over the last few years a wave of artists, mostly from the UK, have started re-negotiating the term into something other than a put-down. They’re making it almost literal. Acts like James Blake, Rhye, and relative newcomers Vondelpark are mashing EDM and dub-inflicted noir ballads with gooey, gut-sung vocal parts. Seabed is Vondelpark’s full-length debut; the London trio combine pained, almost wretched vocals with aquamarine instrument work (so crisp you’d swear it was electronica) for a fairly impressive offering that’s just a little too dour for its own good.
Seabed begins with one of Vondelpark’s strongest offerings: the mercurial “Quest” swaps deftly between mid-tempo 90s-inclined R&B and trans-galactic meditations on ocean life. Lewis Rainsbury doesn’t quite have the vocal chops (or idiosyncrasies) of James Blake, but his fallow croon is hoisted by a band with nearly twice the instrumental sense. The bleak “Come On”, which borrows lyrics from The Cure’s “In Between Days”, proves Rainsbury a capable singer, and he gives Smith’s words a haunting and memorable turn as the centerpiece for romantic self-destruction. But “Come On” also sounds kind of like a wonky, slowed down version of its goth-pop forebear; the lyrics have been sapped of their wist and romance, filled instead with an eerily comfortable sadness. And one thing Seabed could use is a little more discomfort.
“Blue Again” obviates an admirable reference point for Seabed: Jurgen Muller’s cult classic album Science of the Sea, whose aquatic imagery and bubbling synths are both in full display on Seabed. Yet where Science of the Sea evoked the haunting mystery of life in the deep ocean, Seabed‘s aquatic inflection doesn’t get it much deeper than a suburban swimming pool. Swimming pools are very nice – on the right day, the can even be perfect – but they’re also safe and somewhat insubstantial when compared to something like the Atlantic. “Blue Again” also makes an upsetting fact about Seabed quite clear – that the album lacks anything resembling a surprise. The song contains one of the album’s only real breakaways from the seemingly tight confines of post-dub soul music (or whatever you want to call it), and the little guitar noodle that spurs it is one of Seabed‘s most splendid moments. Albums like Seabed, trenched as they are in such a thematically homogenous zeitgeist, need breakaway points that remind you of why you’re listening to band X and not band Y.
Seabed is gorgeous, but often not in any particularly interesting way. Seabed is also distressingly slow; by the time you make it to “Seabed,” the album’s eighth track, you will feel simultaneously as though several hours have passed and as though you’re only on track two. Vondelpark have made an album stripped of novelty and fun: what we are left with is deep and rich, to be sure, and in every recognizable sense the product of a holistic and singular vision. But there is a lack of kinetic energy on Seabed that often renders it more of a reference point for exquisite musical ideas than a legitimately interesting album.