Prior to the creation of his debut album, Ryan Hunn - aka Illum Sphere - had already laid solid foundations as a critically acclaimed producer. Having remixed Radiohead’s ‘Codex’, co-founded Hoya:Hoya and released music on the likes of Young Turks and Fat City as far back as 2009, his first LP ‘Ghosts of Then and Now’ has been long-awaited. Throughout the album, Hunn’s varied and eclectic musical tastes and influences are incredibly prominent. As ‘Ghosts…’ gently oscillates from broody bass music to chill, 2-step to jazz, the vast range of textures and layers create a rich soundscape that draws you in and, for the majority of the album, holds you within its dusky, yet dreamlike, grip.
Introducing this new release is the initial white noise crackle of ‘Liquesce’ that masks the hauntingly distant piano refrain and ghostlike vocal harmonies, and hints at a time long past. Yet this is but a rare glimpse of the ‘ghosts of then’; as the commanding bassline is introduced and the rest of the album follows, we are very much immersed in a sound that, as Ninja Tune themselves described, "couldn’t be more modern".
The leading single ‘Sleeprunner’ encapsulates the sense of a journey that ‘Ghosts…’ takes each listener on; the menacing synth arpeggio (reminiscent, as much of the album is, of eighties sci-fi) alludes to a dark and dense storm, gradually cleared by marimbas and warm strings that lift you out of the tempest, before suddenly plunging you back into shadows. Similarly, the mechanical 2-step bass and drums that drive ‘The Road’ evoke a sort of industrial setting, with Shadowbox’s rich and despondent lyrics being almost overpowered by such a heavy beat. Both songs seem to have been created with the aim of being dramatic and stately, which has worked almost effortlessly, yet their intensity is possibly not for everyone.
In sharp contrast to the persistently foreboding ambiance that hangs over the first part of the album, the latter half moves away from the sense of sinister open space to somewhere warmer. The infectious layers of piano solos and shakers of the Jazz-influenced ‘Near the End’ transcend the overall sound of the LP, and ‘Love Theme From Foreverness’ blends ethereal, almost unintelligible, vocals with more delicate drums and strings that lets the atmosphere slip into a more dream like state. It is hypnotic, perhaps beautiful.
At times, however, the LP feels quite unsettled. ‘Lights Out/In Shinjuku’, whilst yet another example of Hunn’s ability to work loops into a textured tapestry of sound, is slightly too static. Even the comparatively fast paced ‘It’ll Be Over Soon’ doesn’t quite incite pulse-raising anticipation as it could have the potential to; unlike most of the other songs on ‘Ghosts…’, there is no big crescendo, no moment of reflection, or elation, or angst, it simply grinds to a halt and echoes out into the distance. Nevertheless, with every cut at least under five minutes long, these repetitive loops do not linger long enough to fully outstay their welcome, allowing the album to continually evolve.
As ‘Ghosts…’ is neatly rounded off by the sublime ‘Embryonic’, the intensity of the past forty minutes is finally lifted. Whether this release surpasses the boundaries of electronic music is open for debate, but with an album so rich in textures and genres it is remarkable that it is his debut. ‘Easy-listening’ it certainly is not, and although at parts the album seems disjointed, as each track drifts between sentiments of the past and sounds of the future, Hunn has most definitely showcased his skills as a producer. ‘Ghosts of Then and Now’ is an escape to the imagination, and the next addition to Illum Sphere’s discography will be greatly anticipated.
Words: Josie Roberts