To place British expat producer Mark Barrott's new album, Sketches From An Island 2, in proper context, it's first important to understand the Balearic music culture of the island of Ibiza. It's a culture that exists well beyond the thousands of global ravers who annually descend on a 222-square-mile rock in the western Mediterranean for what's sometimes called "techno tourism." The story of Balearic Beat and Ibiza lies at the heart of Barrott's work the past seven years, but it also remains central to the notions of rhythm and energy in dance-music culture; notions that are much broader than many care to believe.
One of Spain's Balearic islands, Ibiza has long been a European resort destination, but in the 1980s it became home to two establishments with resident DJs — Jose Padilla at Café Del Mar and DJ Alfredo at Amnesia — whose vibes ended up crucial to the last 30-plus years of dance music. Alfredo's mix of house, disco, new wave and rock at open-all-night Amnesia inadvertently led to Britain's acid-house-fueled 1988 Summer Of Love, when a group of London DJs (including Paul Oakenfold) experienced it and brought it home. Padilla's influence, on the other hand, has been less specific, more atmospheric and philosophically deeper. Café Del Mar is, by all accounts, not a club but a bar, wherein the outdoor setting lends itself more to sea breezes and sunsets than all-night raving. Here, Padilla's chiller-than-chill and musically uninhibited mix of kosmiche ambience, soft-focus disco and emotional New Age, touched up with global rhythms and jazzy chords, struck the right tone of feeling. Almost every chill-out, downbeat/downtempo or trip-hop record made in the last quarter-century can trace its lineage back here.
Padilla is Barrott's neighbor on Ibiza, where the Sheffield-born producer relocated in 2012. The sound of Barrott's adopted home has served as the primary music of his label, International Feel, and especially the Sketches From An Island series of releases, which kicked off in 2013. These are simple, melodious sounds, as rhythmically relaxed, spacious and unfurnished as the drum-and-bass tracks with which Barrott began his career (under the name Future Loop Foundation) were singleminded. What both ends of his creative timeline share is a love of harmony and texture, as well as the subtlety and nuance that comes with them. This is what Sketches From An Island 2, a mostly all-new set of Balearic beauties, showcases again and again. So what if, at times, it gives you the self-conscious feeling of listening to the Windham Hill catalog? As with much of life, part of the fun lies in turning preconceived notions on their head by simply paying attention.
Barrott makes most of the music himself with a MacBook Pro, Ableton and a couple of keyboard MIDI controllers. It's a minimal operation, perfect for music that exudes no fuss even as it distills an entire planet of sound into a local spirit. Here, marimbas and sequencers circle around each other, with flanged keys and birdsong samples unfolding as leisurely, remorseless gamelan-techno ("Cirrus & Cumulus"). There, tablas, twangy guitars and slightly ominous synth lines update analog German ambient music for a digital age, pacing a cosmic gaze ("der Stern, der nie vergeht," or "the star that never fades"). "Over At Dieter's Place" is an excerpt of a track, built on the interweaving of a music box's melodic clicks and an acoustic guitar, while bongos, tambourines and rain-sticks poke through on occasion and synthetic flutes float ever upward. It's all a mood. When somebody does join Barrott in his gorgeous solitude, the setting sharpens slightly — Jordan Humber's lead electric-guitar lines in "Distant Storms At Sea" evoke Pink Floyd's drama in bursts, while Juan-Mártin Pillado's fretless bass adds an understandable heaviness to "Winter Sunset Sky" — but mostly the parts are ever-present.
As the environmentally minded titles so obviously suggest, Sketches 2 is Barrott's soundtrack to nature as a psychedelic trip, music with which to throw off the industrial chains. Mere miles away from the EDM racket that continues to bring accidental converts into its sphere, and the boutique hotel lobbies that are this music's usual venues, Barrott's Balearica effortlessly shows off its twin natural habitats: a gorgeous countryside and a peaceful mind.
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