There’s a sweetness and simplicity to Kllo that feels fresh and exciting.
The Australian cousin duo Kllo’s debut is a rich survey of electronic music that incorporates house, garage and downtempo trademarks and compliments them with ethereal, aching vocals. Producer Simon Lam and singer Chloe Kaul showcase tremendous chemistry that makes Backwater a rich and immersive blend of electronic backdrops and wistful pop vocals. It’s a formula and dynamic that are certainly well-worn, but there’s a sweetness and simplicity to Kllo that feels fresh and exciting.
Album opener “Downfall” is Burial-esque, with skittering garage drums and warm vocal stabs stacked up to the Karman line. Kaul’s voice is exceptionally malleable, capable of sustaining long notes, arranged into reverb-heavy harmonies or diced to bits and thrown into Lam’s sampler. While plenty of producers chop up samples of their lead vocalist, Lam takes great care to spread Kaul’s voice around and experiment with it as a tool without smothering the actual topline vocals themselves.
Warm synth bass punctuates “Dissolve” and single “Virtue,” and there’s a palpable sense of yearning and emotional honesty that is in keeping with some of the year’s best electronic records, whether from Kelela or Four Tet. Most tracks are given rapid-fire production that provides backbone, but the chords are often simultaneously thick and atmospheric, nestling perfectly into the space between Kaul’s lead vocals and the frenetic percussion. Rarely do the tones not sync up well with Kaul’s voice, creating a rich, multi-layered harmony.
The temperature drops considerably on “By Your Side,” in which Lam’s synths take on an icy tone and Kaul’s vocals, which always feel just a finger’s length past your reach, feel especially ephemeral. “Making Distractions” is slower with a kind of dance-hall snare pattern that gives the track a unique, almost tropical feel. While Kllo doesn’t deviate hugely from their wheelhouse, they do often find these kinds of small ways to keep Backwater fresh.
Many moments on the album, especially “Virtue,” “Predicament” and “By Your Side,” are club suitable, but much of the project, such as slower, more somber cuts like “Nylon” and “Too Fast,” works better as headphone music where you can appreciate the distance between individual tracks and the way that elements move around in the mix. For their next record, the group could stand to play with the tone and inspiration behind their drum tracks, which grow a bit tedious over a full-length project. There’s plenty of specificity to Kaul’s lyrics, but it would be exciting to hear her put more weight behind her vocals, as she does on “Virtue.” She doesn’t need to be a belter, but the timbre of her voice conveys emotion so well it would be exhilarating to hear her lean into it even more.
Even for a listener with minimal interest in the electronic staples the duo is incorporating and subverting, Backwater has more than enough earworm melodies and captivating textures to be one of the stronger debuts of the year. 2017 has been a strong year for smart, rueful electronic music, and Kllo prove that they have the songwriting chops to belong in that category.