In hip-hop, the distinction between a ‘beatmaker’ and a producer is key. The former is effectively a hired gun, while the latter is an integral part of the creative process. But there’s just as important of a distinction to be made between a producer and a composer, and it’s one that Anna Meredith highlights on every second of her breathtakingly immersive, textured debut LP, Varmints.
Meredith has already accomplished plenty in her musical career. She served as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, and had a piece of hers performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 2012.
For someone who made Britain’s most talented young musicians perform with nothing but claps and stomps in Royal Albert Hall, the task of making a full length LP might seem like a walk in the park, but Meredith consistently does a phenomenal job of blending her concert hall ambition with a more mainstream musical sensibility.
Opener “Nautilus” has been out for nearly four years, but it still sounds fresh and exciting. The swirling horns sound like they could morph into a TNGHT record any second, but when the drums barge in after nearly four minutes they’re nothing like you might expect: a clean kick-snare-kick-snare pattern that highlights the beauty of the escalating melody.
“Taken” is equally noteworthy. It blends a new wave edge with gorgeous vocal harmonies, all built upon an arpegiatted fever dream of a guitar line. The male-female dynamic is a nice quirk that gives the track more sonic depth.
The same underlying anxiety is present on “R-Type”, which actually has a bit of a prog-math rock feel due to the layers of staccato synths.
Varmints eschews a genre tag by reinventing several. “Something Helpful” is electronic, with lush synth stabs four-on-the-floor drums, but it’s also cloaked in elegant falsetto harmonies.
To Meredith, there’s no difference between writing album cuts and symphonies. “I approach writing with everything I've got. Whether it's an orchestra piece, or a piece for kids or an album track; it's exactly the same way,” she told The 405.
Even the songs with more conventional structure feature an attention to detail and craftsmanship that is clearly rare. “Dowager” is similar to Tune-Yards’ most contemplative work, but employs some harmonies you’d almost never hear on a standard pop record.
“Last Rose” utilizes the most traditional orchestral elements, like a bellowing string section, but the track itself is thoughtful and restrained. Closer “Blackfriars” is similarly string-centric, but much slower and fragile, a reminder that Meredith doesn’t need vocals to make music that is rich in feeling.
As with a lot of more cerebral albums, there are a few tracks that don’t quite stand alone well. “Shill” is deliberately chaotic, but the synth tones are a bit harsh, and it echoes of Parquet Courts’ assaultive Monastic Living EP. “The Vapours” clocks in at nearly seven minutes, and while its constant reinvention is an impressive technical feat the piece itself isn’t especially compelling.
Still, its impressive how much of Varmints can be taken both by itself and in the context of the record as a whole. Meredith clearly put a good deal of effort into sequencing, and it shows both in the flow of one song into another and the album in its entirety.
Back in 2013, Meredith told Pitchfork her dream project was “a massive, bombastic tour with hydraulics, robots, lasers, 15 costume changes, projecting on a power station, big impact, big visuals.” Whether that ever comes to fruition remains to be seen, but Varmints is certainly an album deserving of such spectacle.