umLäb is a product of a pandemic musical laboratory established between four members of Moncton NB’s Les Païens.
There’s no shortage of reviews comparing instrumental electronic music to something otherworldly. The vast emptiness of space is often used as a starting point to describe something different. And I get why this happens so much. It can be tough to describe music that bears little immediate resemblance to the more common structures of pop music, rock and roll or even jazz, despite all its inherent experimentation.
And it’s not just writers who attempt to make these connections. Countless groups have employed space imagery to define their work. I’m thinking specifically of Parliament’s Mothership Connection, ELO’s Out of the Blue, and even ZZ Top’s Afterburner. Three very different bands that at one point chose to place their music in this otherworldly context. Sure, space represents the unknown, and what better way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack than by attempting to market your own music as something completely unique and far removed from all of your contemporaries? It’s all a bit cliché. But that’s where my mind went after listening to Disque Space, the debut EP from Moncton’s umLäb. Even though they made no attempt to place themselves in some outer orbit besides cleverly slipping the word space into the EP’s title to create a fun play on words, this new release gave me those zero gravity vibes, so I’m just going to run with it.
umLäb could be called a side project, but that’s just another cliché isn’t it? The band consists of four musicians, all current members of Moncton’s long-running experimental jazz outfit, Les Païens. And you can easily hear that in their music. Like Les Païens – and let’s call them the mothership just to keep this space theme alive – the members of umLäb draw on a lot of free-form approaches to their writing. It’s intentional, and a direct result of the mix of improvisations and compositions that make up this debut release. But there’s enough integrity to this collection of tracks to give what Denis Surette, Sébastien Michaud, Jonah Haché and Jean Surette have created, the distance required to distinguish themselves as something altogether unique from their past other collective work. This isn’t Les Païens Lite.
The origins of umLäb date back to the early days of the pandemic. Recorded in 2020 and mixed in 2021, Disque Space arrived at the tail end of 2021 just in time to squeeze in a few release shows before the holidays.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Les Païens is how each of the group’s members create space for one another within the compositions they create. This awareness of one’s surroundings is essential, especially when dealing with the range of instrumentation that supports the group’s genre bending approach to music. Every sound occupies its own distinct place, never crowded or encroached upon. This appreciation or understanding – whatever you want to call it – gets a close up examination on Disque Space. While the similarities between the two groups are many, umLäb take a decidedly sparse approach, embracing the microcosm they inhabit with masterful confidence and a strong desire to explore the far reaches of their individual and collective abilities. From the variety of tones and instrumentation and the looped phrases that act as a platform to build on, to the recording and the final mix, Disque Space is a journey of discovery, both for the musicians involved and for the us, the listeners.
Aided by additional instrumentation from c/o co-producer Andrew Creggan, Disque Space, though made up of five distinct compositions, flows effortlessly from one to the next. Each track sets up the one to follow in a way that supports the entire EP as one continuous listening experience. Within each of these tracks, there are changes. Plenty of changes. Mostly in texture and soloing. But also in the underlying mood established and carried forward by looped rhythms and bass tones. The EP begins with a taste of everything. There is flute and there are horns, both actual and metaphorical. The descending bassline of the opening title track paired with a contrasting rhythm that climbs forward carrying one instrumental passage into the next serves to introduce listeners to much of what’s to come. Lots of introductions are made in these first few minutes. And over the course of the EP’s twenty or so minute runtime, each voice and plenty of others are given the opportunity to expand, step up, and then happily retreat to the background. It’s like they’ve taken the romantic notion of a 1940’s underground jazz club and put it, you guessed it, IN SPACE! Sorry. I couldn’t resist.
Guided by contrast, repetition, movement and balance, Disque Space is more than just another debut EP. It’s a call to action and a strong act of creative encouragement in these difficult times we find ourselves in. It’s also a great reminder that music can (and should) exist without boundaries. And the fact that it works so well as both a deep-listening experience and a casual background soundtrack make it an easy, rewarding listen no matter what galaxy you’re occupying at the time.