Review: Inji – LA Priest

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This piece was originally published on the 29th of June 2015.

If you’ve paid any attention to the emergence of LA Priest over past few months, you’ve probably heard the Greenland story by now. If you haven’t, the story goes that Sam Eastwood, the man behind the moniker who prefers to go by Sam Dust for some reason, spent an indistinct amount of time in Greenland investigating the ways in which electromagnetic frequencies affect recorded sound. And, actually, that’s it. The end.

It’s hardly the most compelling story, I think you’ll agree, but it’s the one with which Dust’s label, Domino, led when announcing his signing back in February of this year. I suppose their reasoning was twofold: first, it partially explains Dust’s prolonged absence following the 2010 hiatus of his band, dance-punk’s cult heroes Late of the Pier; second, and more crucially, it laid the foundations for a marketing strategy largely concerned with positioning Dust as an artist propelled by an unwavering sense of invention. While the Greenland anecdote seems trivial on first blush, it nonetheless contributes to a composite image of ‘LA Priest, The Artist’ that’s been carefully assembled by Domino, one that comprises bizarre promotional singles, interviews, and Dust’s earlier shenanigans in Late of the Pier’s playground of imagination. This image depicts an audacious and singular artist, someone with the power to shake you from your malaise and reveal hitherto unfathomable realms of possibility through the sheer force of his imagination. He is situated at a remove from practically everything else happening in contemporary music, portrayed as an enchanting wizard of rhythm who’s here to tell us about the rhythms of the universe – starting, naturally, with Greenland’s electromagnetic frequencies.

Yeah, well, not really. As persuasive as that spiel can seem when the hype machine is running at full power, it doesn’t fairly reflect Dust’s first album as LA Priest, Inji. His creative process may very well be governed by idiosyncratic and imaginative designs, but such qualities do not resound throughout the record with much vigour. Oh, sure, they’re there, but in fits and starts. They’re there, but Dust’s creative abandon feels deliberately curtailed. Certainly, there’s enough evidence – enough gleeful experimentation and frenetic eclecticism – to suggest that he could one day record an album so thoroughly batshit that it’s only definable in opposition to everything else, but not enough to mark Inji as that album. No, Inji is a friendly greeting, the unchallenging first stages, a pop record that’s sonically and stylistically adventurous without being in any way­ threatening. It sounds different enough to its contemporaries to grab attention, but no so much that it’ll overwhelm or confound. This is, I suppose, weird music for people who don’t really ‘do’ weird music. But please do not mistake that for a value judgement; I’m not saying that Inji is a lesser album simply because Dust didn’t take the left-hand path at every turn, far from it.

What I am saying, however, is that there’s a divide between the album I heard and the album I’m being sold that needs to be bridged. To be sure, Inji is not some audacious, adversarial mission statement from a globe-trotting genius – it’s the first album from an artist who, despite his confidence, needs to invite listeners in and establish a relationship with them. Sure, Dust has Late of the Pier in his past, but he’s working in a completely different mode now – playing with funk, synth-pop, disco and more – and operating under a name that many don’t recognise (Dust previously released music as LA Priest in 2007 with a single called ‘Engine’ released on Erol Alkan’s label Phantasy, but left the project dormant until this year). To this end, Inji is a kaleidoscopic melange of smooth pop numbers, gloriously excessive pastiche freak-outs, and instrumental tracks that range from beguiling (‘Lorry Park’) to frankly execrable (‘Gene Washes with New Arm’). It’s a highlights reel, a showcase for his stylistic malleability and deft touch as a songwriter (but not as a lyricist, unfortunately), a way to try on different masks and ingratiate himself to a new audience without scaring them off. And, in that respect, it works.

Two of the record’s three instrumental tracks admittedly fall flat, but they’re more inconsequential than egregious – if you decide to overlook the sadsack Clanger orgy ‘Gene Washes with New Arm’, anyway. Straight-faced, chilled-out electronic pop proves to be a more comfortable fit for Dust, as he demonstrates with ‘Lady’s in Trouble with the Law’, ‘Night Train’, and ‘Mountain’ that he’s capable of writing conventionally structured numbers that are in equal parts luscious and engrossing. Still, as eminently listenable as these tracks are, they nonetheless hold a slightly rote and domesticated quality when compared to the untamed and outlandish album highlights ‘Onio’, ‘Party Zute/Learning to Love’, and ‘Occasion’. Here, Dust builds fluorescent Play-Doh structures so high and with so many ridiculous façades that they’re on the brink of toppling over. ‘Oino’ for example, opens with a simple interplay between its skeletal rhythm section and gorgeous synth melody that’s vaguely reminiscent of Kraftwerk, but then Dust introduces, among other things, a hilariously affected falsetto, a guitar solo that would feel at home on a Muse record, and a cascading synth that sounds vaguely influenced by Middle-Eastern music. Not only does it not sound like anything else, there’s a crucial tension derived from the underlying sense that the song could easily collapse under all this weight, and it’s all the more exhilarating for that reason.

But while Dust clearly loves to stretch certain songs as much as he possibly can, he’s careful to never split them in two; they are without exception predicated on consistent and understated rhythm sections that provide substantial backbones, even when the foreground feels completely amorphous. You never lose track of these songs, even when Dust is indulging his more experimental whims; they’re still accessible pop numbers, ones that could easily be aired on BBC Radio 1 during the daytime without causing much confusion. Primarily, this is because Dust utilizes a wide vocabulary of easily recognisable quotations, but imbues them with more. So, ‘Occasion’ is basically a horny Prince song that’s totally overblown with prog-rock wankery (in a good way), while eight minute banger ‘Party Zute/Learning to Love’ careers through the funk pastiche of Discovery-era Daft Punk to the more accessible reaches of Aphex Twin, all the while luxuriating in the iridescent sheen of contemporary pop production that brings to mind Lxury (who, it must be noted, helped Dust self-produce Inji along with Leon Vynehall). In these moments, there’s something wonderfully uncanny about what Dust is doing, turning the familiar into something unfamiliar by cramming in as much stuff as possible without spoiling it all.

While the rest of the album is suitably diverse and sufficiently well-crafted to pique interest, these three tracks really put up a fight. They feel utterly carefree and full of joy – like, it must be said, most of Dust’s work with Late of the Pier. They’re delivered with a mischievous grin and a wink, an acknowledgement that what he’s doing is kind of absurd, but fuck it. When embodying this spirit, Inji is absolutely at its best; it’s Dust living up to the Enchanting Wizard of Rhythm title that was foisted upon him by marketing and, honestly, making music like nobody else. But this spirit is not as pervasive as you’d hope. I suppose the whole idea of hype machines entails that they get way ahead of themselves, but Sam Dust is clearly not some ineffable agent of creativity and Inji will not tear up the game. Inji is an erratic debut album, an invitation to go forward into weirder territories with Dust in the future. As invitations go, however, it’s intriguing enough to take up.

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