I think one of the most difficult things to do when it comes to a review, is to pen away at work that's been done by a trusted and treasured friend.
Mind you, we've only known each other a short time, meeting for coffee in the City Hall area on his virgin trip to the island a year or two ago when he was DJing for a Darker Than Wax party. Also given the fact that I had been buying and playing some of his music for a few good years prior to that, coupled with the glowing praises that another good friend of mine from Toronto, named Ange, had been singing of him and his work for a few good years now, that brief meeting over coffee was all that more special and somewhat, anticipated in every respect.
However, friendship aside, when it does come to his music, Stuart Li, or more known to his loyal following as Basic Soul Unit is as serious as it can get. From his earlier material on Iwanai Music and Left of the Dial which go back to between 2003 to 2005, to his more recent output on Versatile, Ostgut Ton, Crème Organization, New Kanada and of course, our very own new label-kid on the block, Midnight Shift, this is surprisingly, Stuart's first artist album to date. And with this being his first artist album, I expect it to be even twice as serious.
Simply entitled 'Motional Response', and to be released next month via Chicago house label Still Music, Stuart wraps the album lovingly and dynamically, almost akin to someone who is about to wrap a birthday present to the love of his life. Not a crease nor a tear in the works. Only painstaking work, ensuring that every corner and fold is taken and executed with the strictest of care and precision (from Stuart, I wouldn't expect anything less).
The album opens account with 'Across The Room', a delicate hypnotic slice of techno that builds on percussion and guiding handclaps layering swirls of fluttering FX, strings and acid bass stabs before gliding into the main melodic structure of the arrangement proper. The acid bass stabs then cease momentarily and morph into a counter melody that in turn segues into the track's basic melody structure and takes this entire part of the arrangement into more layered atmospheric territory. As it pans out to the end with that acid bass stab returning to take its place in the final few bars, I'm already thinking 'pure bliss'.
'Breathe' that follows, is a deep vocal track with lyrics that echo self reflection over a driving mid-tempo house groove, written and performed to soulful perfection by Toronto chanteuse Sacha Williamson.
'Clouds' brings us back to the basic, soulful, melodic techno that we've all come to know and love from Stuart, a gentle basic 4/4 track that cascades and shuffles within its driving 909 back-beat and runs an assortment of melodies in our head while it floats along. A beautiful slice of niceness here, that, in some small way, reminds me a little of 'Surface And Submerge' - a track off his Ascend Into The Night EP on Versatile in 2009.
'Sandpiper', that follows this, darkens the tone a tad and takes the tempo up a notch, and takes the track into more arpeggiated bass territory introducing a certain rawness to the groove via the chopped up dirty' snares and hats that gnaw and rip through most of the track. 'All Over Me' carries the album forward, highlighting Stuart's understanding of the simplicities of melodic techno from all corners of the globe. And although, the Detroit influence is strong in many of the tracks on this album, this one, by and large, sounds distinctly European to a greater extent.
'This' merges and manipulates the Chicago and Detroit elementals into a driving and more dance-floor oriented groove with its bass driven funkiness almost sounding like Larry Heard and Terence Parker locked in a studio with Juan Atkins and Carl Craig. 'Back Seat Lover' continues in similar fashion, keeping it basic and yet driving the groove home as raw as it can get.
'Intersection', and 'Mind Forest' revisit the deeper shades that have made this album such a treat thus far as Stuart punctuates his simple arrangements with those subtle, hypnotic and engaging melodies that only he knows how to do so well, breaking up the 4/4 arrangement in 'Intersection' with a dirty filtered shuffled kick drum as the track reaches it's twilight moments and messing with the entire momentum of it in the last 30 seconds. A subtle twisted act of pure genius.
As is the album closer 'Let Go', a beat-less matrix of intertwining melodies that build and crescendo into their eventual climax and then leaves the bass to bring the track and record to it's final ebb.
The two bonus track are also worth mentioning; the album's only vocal track 'Breathe' is given a slight thump courtesy of Still Music's label owner Jerome Derradji with Underground Resistance's Gerald Mitchel providing additional strings to its already, stellar arrangement and tone. And the second, an extended version of my favourite album track 'Clouds' is worth its weight in techno gold, for every single enticing minute.
As I said when I started this review, being objective and drop dead honest when reviewing an artist album especially when its the output of a good friend, is difficult. But Mr Li, you've just made it easy.
A1. Across The Room
B1. All Over Me
D1. Mind Forest
D2. Let Go