EP Review – Udon Valis Collective’s ‘Instrumental Variables, Vol. I’

I’m not exactly sure how to start this write-up, because this has easily been the most intimidating feature I’ve ever written. The story behind this UK collective is one for the books, with no pun intended as we dive deeper into the inspiration and literary influences behind this whimsical group of artists. It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint just how this group got its start because it’s comprised of so many moving parts. And yet, the music doesn’t reflect that. Yes, the music is intricate and has a lot of layers. Each track off of the group’s new five-song EP Instrumental Variables, Vol. I has its own distinct sound, with some featuring a completely different set of musicians than others. But if you listen to the EP all the way through, you wouldn’t realize it. Despite the unique features, from jazzy sax solos to mixed in recorded monologues, the songs find a way to piece themselves together. This EP is like a shelter, where all of these artists with their own stories have taken refuge, coming together to make it their home. It’s magical to see, and I honestly hope that I can give it the justice it deserves in trying to analyze their sounds and stories a bit. 

One of the earliest stages of Udon Valis was a group of friends playing jazz covers in the London School of Economics and Pol-Sci practice room. A lot of the founding group members were studying Economic History together, helping them coin the original name of the group, The Instrumental Variables. It was an adorable take on their Economic backgrounds, and while they didn’t keep that name for their group, it did become the title of their EP. They played gigs around the school, meeting new musicians who contributed to their projects in numerous ways. As the collective grew in size, their sound started evolving too. Many of the members bonded over a shared love of hip-hop and decided to incorporate the two genres. As they started moving towards original compositions, they began recording at the Dissident Sound Industry, a recording studio in North London, where they met even more talented artists through monthly jam sessions organized by the studio. Eventually, they finished up their album, re-visiting their recordings a few years later after straying from the project to pursue other endeavors.

My favorite thing about this group is their way of paying homage to the literary works that have changed their life and their ability to connect different types of media. Growing up and playing in symphonic bands and pit orchestras, I love seeing how essential music can be for different types of entertainment. The ability to create a whole atmosphere behind a written plot or spoken dialogue with just a few chords is incredible to me. Even to this day, the songs from Sweeney Todd give me goosebumps. After exhausting rehearsals of learning the chaotic numbers, I personally experienced just how much the music impacted the musical and its dark storyline, making me appreciate it that much more. I can’t watch Star Wars without hearing “The Imperial March” and reminiscing on how powerful the brass section sounded right in front of me, creating an intimidating aura behind a fictional character. It helps give both the music and the story a new meaning, a different way to listen to it and be transported somewhere else, and it’s a beautiful journey to embark on. The collective used this mixed-media idea in a lot of their titles and tracks, specifically using different pieces of literature. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, the group ended up choosing a different name to go by. The name “Valis” was directly taken from the Philip K. Dick Sci-Fi novel, directly contributing to their name, Udon Valis Collective. 

The very first track of the EP, “Children of the Mist”, serves as quite the introduction for the project. The gritty, Lo-fi piece incorporates a lot of eclectic sounds, from the plucked strings to the sharp vocals, instantly transporting me to foreign and exotic lands. The ghostly beginning of the minute and a half long piece lingers, making you wonder what will come next. The beat is curiously inconsistent as well, and that syncopation of the light percussion is where you really start to hear that jazz style. After a bit of digging, I learned that the recording sampled in the track is about the mist-maiden, Hine-pūkohu-rangi. It directly references a Māori legend about how the Tūhoe people became known as the ‘children of the mist’. Although I am not too certain, I believe the recording itself was taken from the New Zealand 1974 National Film Unit production, Children of the Mist. This is just one of the incredible ways the group incorporates other types of media into their work, and although it definitely has the most stand-out sound of the EP, it somehow manages to set the premise of the rest of the tracks, letting the listener know that they are in for a story even if the recording doesn’t continue.

The second track, “Algernon” has a bit more of an upbeat feel in contrast to “Children of the Night”, but it still flows in quite nicely. The intro of the EP teases heavier percussion towards the end before it fades out, and the second track does an amazing job of continuing that sound. This picks up the pace for the overall project, setting a new and exciting tone. In fact, I think this may be one of my favorite tracks. The instrumental tells a story all on its own without the rap verses, setting up the premise for the emcee. It starts off quite tame but takes on a conflicted tone as the song leads into the first set of bars. The baseline in the song is extremely telling as well, starting off fairly simple but teetering on the edge of something bigger. It gives the mood a new depth as it builds up to a shift in dynamic as if the story is on the brink of conflict.

This track really showcases how beautifully the group blends together hip-hop and jazz, taking their sound a step further than simply featuring a rapper over a traditional jazz instrumental. Although hip-hop does incorporate a significant amount of jazz techniques, the group takes a beautifully delicate, jazz piano and laces it over a more traditional boom-bap rhythm, bridging the two sounds together in a way that combines the both of them equally. The rapping is extremely interesting too because the very beginning of the verse sounds like a recording taken from a film in the way that it’s been mixed in. The verse starts off slightly slurred, with the words blurring together. But as it progresses, so does the annunciation, making it clearer to understand. He continues to tell the story that was conjured up by the instruments, his words packed with metaphors and imagery in a way that enables the listener to be transported. About halfway through, the song starts incorporating some fierce record scratching, contributing to the chaos. At that moment, the song does seem to be a bit more of a hip-hop track, but the jazzy and rhythmic bass holds it down to its roots.

The song falls into its third phase almost four minutes in as the conflict seems to meet resolution. The keys are absolutely beautiful, but it’s the background vocals that caught my attention. They were so gentle and whimsical, and I found myself wanting more of them, reminding me of the effect of a Siren’s song. It was such an incredible contrast to the rapping, that it’s easy to forget that it’s all one track. The piano is optimistic and full of hope as if the protagonist has finally met their happy ending, providing a sense of relief for the listener. As the song fades out, I felt met with a completeness that one only feels after a whole story, as if all of the bases were covered (again, no pun intended; I’m on a roll with this one). Although reflected more in the structure than the lyrics, the title of the song is actually named after another beloved book to the collective, “Flowers for Algernon”, by Daniel Keyes.

When I first heard the next song, “Istanbul Fantasy”, I was swept away by the opening strings. I’ve talked about it before, but a good orchestral melody can absolutely make me melt. And this was just beautiful. The song features a Turkish spoken word, and it instantly reminded me of early mornings in India when I would wake up to the local mosques and their prayers. Obviously different dialects, the main similarity I saw wasn’t in the language, but in the scratchy lo-fi sound that the Mosque would use to echo the songs throughout the city. The different percussion instruments and horned instruments also helped create this regal, Middle-Eastern sound, which blended perfectly into a jazzy piano outro, one that I wouldn’t have even thought of combining. This group of artists is so incredible at creating atmospheric music, although not necessarily in the traditional sense. It isn’t something you would hear in a weird transcendental club with everyone swaying on LSD. It creates a setting around the listener so that they can envision everything the sounds describe, even more so in their tracks that don’t feature any lyrics. For instance, even though this song conjures up my own personal memories, it transports me to Turkey, making me feel as though I’m walking through the marketplaces that I’m only able to imagine based on what I’m hearing.

“Misty”, the fourth track off of the EP, has the most traditional jazz sound out of all of the songs. The song is actually a take on Erroll Garner’s song, “Misty”, but the group re-arranged it to incorporate hip-hop elements as well as the verse. The song feels like a breezy Sunday morning and instantly puts the listener at ease. The emcee echoes this feeling by rapping lightly and lazily over the piano keys, allowing the beat to easily carry his flow so that the two work hand in hand, making sure to not overpower the other. What I love about the verse is how poetic it is, with the syncopation in his voice matching the jazzy beat. His offbeat words don’t feel forced or out of place, but more as they flow naturally to fill every empty crevice that gets opened up for him by the keys, waiting for him to fill the black spaces. I also love the direct correlation between this song and the introduction, with more of the visual imagery relating back to the story than the instrumental. It’s an unlikely pairing, but they work well together, similarly to the group as a whole. Considering a lot of the songs have different sounds and different musicians, it links together as a whole, representing the different faces that the group wears. Of course, these songs feature scratching as well to tie that strong old school element, and yet they’ve really made it work. It isn’t overpowering or harsh in comparison to the verse and the instrumental acts amazingly as a bridge for the lyrics. As the words fade out towards the middle of the song, I absolutely love how they fill that by picking up the percussion. It makes sure that the song isn’t lacking, and helps them introduce the clarinet part which is beautiful. Playing in concert bands growing up, I can’t say there were a lot of songs that I enjoyed that had a main focus on the clarinet. But the part in this song was so sparing and light, that it added just the right amount of embellishment, completing the song.

The last song of the EP, “Such, Such Were The Joys”, has one of the strongest literary ties. The song, which takes the title of one of George Orwell’s essays, opens up with a sound recording from his biographical documentary. The essay discusses his childhood spent at an English boarding school, where he felt as though he was unable to fit in with his surroundings. As the song begins, the opening bass, piano, and percussion all feel like a newfound hope. They feel powerful and strong, and yet light and simple. There’s a beautiful contrast in the starting arrangement between the instruments so that they all fit together perfectly. But it’s the saxophone that tells a different story. It tells one of trials and tribulations, and its tone makes it stand out against the rest of the instruments as if it’s the piece that doesn’t belong, not necessarily musically, but metaphorically. The beautiful thing though, is that the rest of the instruments fall back, allowing the sax to share its story through its complex piece. The solo picks up the tempo of the percussion, which leads to a domino effect for the DJ mixing and the bass. What was once an optimistic piece with each instrument fitting together, breaks apart, allowing each instrument to tell its own tale. Towards the last two minutes into of song, the tone shifts from conflict and frustration to a much more melancholy feel as the percussion maintains the tempo. The keys and sax play much more subdued parts, full of anguish. But there’s also a reassurance between them. There is a beautiful call and answer effect in the way they respond to one another, especially surrounding the sax part that once felt so out of place. This song is definitely the most musically complex off of the EP and serves as an incredible way to wrap up the project.

I love how this group has combined these two genres to make something that’s their own. When I think of a strong jazz/hip-hop crossover, I instantly think of To Pimp a Butterfly. That album was iconic in the way that it introduced a newer, younger generation to jazz and it showed how much influence that genre had on the culture of hip-hop. But this album is different in the way that it reminisced on old school hip-hop through its percussion and record scratching, while also maintaining really strong jazz techniques that require an incredible level of experience. It was nostalgic of older hip-hop beats, reminding me of Nujabes and Common’s Be album especially. But it was still their own. And beautifully enough, with each song featuring new artists, they all brought their own individual sounds to collectively create one incredible EP. If you’d like to stream the full album, I’ve embedded it down below. The collective will be releasing a second volume to Instrumental Variables, so keep an eye out for that!

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Sponsored by Udon Valis Collective

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