Some of today's leading ambient and electronic artists are teaming up for a Japan tsunami benefit...
Jon Hopkins is a musical shapeshifter: a composer, pianist and a self-taught studio wizard. He makes big, bold electronic music using walls of synths, twinkling melodies and amorphous bass rumbles. As such his two albums have seen him labelled by the likes of ambient patriarch Brian Eno as an electronic innovator while an impressive sweep of artists from Herbie Hancock to David Holmes, not to mention ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor, lo-fi folkster King Creosote and musical bluebloods Coldplay, have all called upon the 28-year-old Londoner’s handiwork as a producer and composer.
Which goes some way to explain why his new album Insides is his first in four years. Hopkins’s aesthetic is perpetually intriguing. He transcends genres, melding digital coldness with subtle, bucolic textures; veering from skewed elegance to strange, unsettling depths. Insides’ artfully constructed, unparalleled palette of rhythmic loops and treated piano can be partly explained by Hopkins’ unusual adolescence; he was a child piano prodigy before discovering the bleeps and beeps of dance music. In his west London bedroom he balanced a teen obsession with acid house, early hardcore and grunge alongside weekend piano tutorials at the Royal College of Music. At 16 he flitted between the twilight stoner world of drum‘n’bass pirate radio and German label Recycle or Die’s hypnotic electronica, and the classical discipline of playing a Ravel piano concerto. H
Hopkins honed his skills with years of experimentation on four-track tape recorders and old-school computer programs. After leaving school he toured Europe playing keyboards and samplers with Imogen Heap, before signing to Just Music aged 19. His first album, 2001’s Opalescent, was written in a Wembley bedsit while he jobbed as a session keyboard-player and engineer. A collection of instrumental songs with an escapist, pastoral feel, it earned him a cult following amongst the electronica cognoscenti. Although he was still naive about rave culture and its comedowns, Opalescent unwittingly tapped into a cultural shift as rave morphed into downtempo.
His second outing, Contact Note (2004), was a more evolved set: a cinematic, layered work with a harder experimental edge. It earned Hopkins comparisons to and praise from Brian Eno. An introduction to the sonic alchemist lead to sessions that were later released as part of Eno’s album Another Day on Earth. It was this experience as well as collaborations with singer-songwriter King Creosote and the Fence Collective that lit the touch paper for the genuinely exploratory electronica of his forthcoming third album.
Which is where we find Hopkins now: putting the finishing touches to Insides. He began work on it during autumn 2006. The following year he took a hiatus after being asked to produce King Creosote’s album Bombshell. Around the same time he was introduced to Coldplay by Brian Eno, which led to a stint as an additional producer on their new album Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends. Indeed, the band were so taken with the track ‘Light Through the Veins’ - one of the most sublime moments of Hopkins’ new set - that they’ve used a reworked version to bookend Viva La Vida.
Looking back on earlier, more rigidly sequenced work, Hopkins says he has moved away from the clinical accuracy of precision-tooled beats. “I try to base what I do now on recordings of me drumming on something, or beatboxing badly,” he says. It’s this collision of human imperfection and digital circuitry that lends his latest album a brilliant tension. Its fluttering piano motifs are abruptly overpowered by the sort of brutal basslines that wouldn’t be out of place tremoring the dancefloor at an East London dubstep night, or even accompanying avant-garde choreography – the first half of Insides formed the score to Wayne McGregor’s recent contemporary dance production ‘Entity’, which premiered earlier this year at Sadler’s Wells.
The stunning beauty of tracks such as ‘Vessel’ and ‘Colour Eye’ has an ominous quality. Each track segues seamlessly into the next, with thunderous claustrophobic frequencies offset by familiar sounds - the submerged noise of cars on the street, birdsong, and cold currents of melody that open a window and let the day back in. Although steeped in the seriousness of classical composition, it is not a cerebral musical conceit for art buffs. It’s hardly even a dance record. Insides is about strange contexts: natural, arcane textures welded to uneasy rhythms. Beautiful acoustic melodies set against jarring bass. Insides is, above all, an audacious album with a modernist lustre and magical aura all of its own.