In the short time James Blake has been making music, he’s established that his primary gift is splicing samples. The opening moments of his previous EP, CMYK, set out to prove that ability just about immediately. Blake oscillates between three voices, one of which is Kelis’, in the space of the phrase “Look, I found her damn red coat.” Each word is shot out rapid fire and just as quickly halted, creating a bizarre, unsettling tension, as if you can hear three separate conversations sync up perfectly and miraculously. It’s an almost comically outlandish string of sounds, taking the sampling process to a hyperactive extreme. To restate, this is within the first 20 seconds of his breakout EP.
Mere months later, Blake now releases another EP, Klavierwerke, which simply translates to “piano music” in German. Unsurprisingly, Klavierwerke proves to be more complicated than its title indicates. Even if CMYK was a somewhat subdued affair, there were enough audacious moments in the production to suggest that his follow-up would not be simple “piano music”, no matter what Blake named it. The reality of Klavierwerke is that there are plenty of sections that suggest that applying the chosen title to this EP is a total misnomer. Great gobs of time are spent without a single audible piano anywhere in the mix (“great gobs” is meant to be relative to the EP’s short, sixteen-minute running time).
The general format for the four tracks that comprise Klavierwerke is as follows: each song starts with a lonely piano. Pretty soon thereafter, that piano all but disappears and is replaced with ethereal electronic percussion and ghostly voices drifting in and out. Again, piano music, my ass, but the EP has plenty to recommend it without strictly adhering to its stated goal.
The title track opens Klavierwerke, as stated above, with stately piano that is gone within the first 30 seconds. In its stead is a flurry of cascading, mangled voices repeatedly showing up at the end of each measure of snapped beats. Eventually, everything but a spare beat is left, giving way to a murmuring pulse of noise, and the three tracks that follow use some permutation of this formula to similar effect.
If this all sounds off-puttingly esoteric, I can assure you that the listening experience is considerably more affecting than any description can match. Klavierwerke is, by turns, subtly spooky, achingly pretty, and surprisingly touching without ever letting a completely comprehensible phrase slip out. Blake’s music, more so than ever, hits at a visceral level, using the cold, glitchy atmosphere and spectral trail of voices to suggest as much anguish as any clearly elucidated lyrics could. Whether Blake can pull off this kind of magic for a full-length album remains to be seen, but Klavierwerke and CMYK seem to say that part of his talent lies in getting an LP’s worth of powerful material out of the shorter format.