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Holy Hell! Vocalcity Turns 20

Holy Hell! Vocalcity Turns 20

Though Ripatti may forever be best-known for Vocalcity, his ambient career as Vladislav Delay has produced some of the strongest ambient albums of the last couple decades

The chords. That’s the first thing you notice on Vocalcity, stretching and contracting as the kick crawls towards oblivion, serving as our guide through Sasu Ripatti’s debut as Luomo. A voice rises out of the distance, its whispered consonants slipping through our fingers as it dives in and out of the murk. This is the famous vocal tease, and when the singer finally enters after nearly five minutes—“there’s nothing in the world that you can do”—it’s as satisfying as anything that’s ever happened in a pop song. Less remarked is a few minutes later, when the chords drop out without warning. You’re on your own, the door behind you is closed, and there’s no way to go but forward, into the bowels of one of the deepest of all house albums.

Vocalcity spans six songs in 76 minutes; only “She-Center” fails to reach the 10-minute mark. This is one reason Vocalcity feels so encompassing. Another is its linearity. The divisions between songs here are arbitrary. They bleed into each other, and the ambient stretch that divides “The Right Wing” and “Tessio” is as memorable as either track on its own. The experience of listening to Vocalcity is marked less by songs than moments, like snatches of laughter at the ends of “Class” and “The Right Wing,” or an electric piano that flares up at the perfect moment in “She-Center,” never to be heard again.

Ripatti is a Finn who usually records as Vladislav Delay. A jazz drummer, he had little experience with house music or clubbing when he recorded Vocalcity at age 23. Though he still cites Philly Joe Jones as his biggest influence, there’s little here to suggest his background except the album’s forward arc, more akin to a sit-down long-player than a collection of tracks meant to be lugged around by DJs. It might also manifest in its belief that a song isn’t something static but something to be stretched, distended, explored, repurposed, deconstructed, and stripped for parts.

There are vocals on every track, usually a woman’s but occasionally a man’s. On “The Right Wing” and “She-Center” they dance and moan in the distance behind thick filters that give these tracks a kinship with the chillwave and instrumental hip-hop production of a decade later. On “Market,” “Class” and “Synkro” they’re hooks, unmoored, drifting helplessly on the waves as if thrown overboard by a song.

“Tessio” is the album’s only true song, in that its lyrics can be written in more than four lines. Ripatti begins teasing it as early as two-thirds of the way into “The Right Wing,” as a sample he no doubt sourced from one of the late-‘90s indie dramas he loved to pillage ends its monologue and breaks into song. “Tessio” is the sea towards which all flows, and like the sea it has no true border, spilling into “The Right Wing” and “She-Center.” It feels like the destination to which the entire record was the journey.

In the same way Ripatti teases the hooks of each of his songs before they assemble themselves, the whole album be seen as a tease for “Tessio.” Even the truths and aphorisms that dot the record—“I want everything from you,” “I’ve got to keep on moving with you”—unspool into this tremendous ballad. “I guess you turn me on/when you’re gone,” says the singer, as if getting the bullshit out of the way and confessing what’s really on her mind. By itself, it’s probably the least interesting track on Vocalcity. Within the structure of the album, it feels inevitable.

Ripatti doesn’t like Vocalcity. Why is beyond me, though Van Morrison didn’t like Astral Weeks either. Maybe it’s because it’s an early work, or maybe he actually started going to (or playing) clubs and had his idea of dance music flipped. What’s for sure is he never made anything that sounded quite like Vocalcity again. The next Luomo album, The Present Lover, was seen as a bit of a disappointment when it came out. Now, it seems like, if not the better album, the more principled one—more attuned to the dancefloor, more focused on songs than ghosts of songs, broader in its emotional range, maybe even more likely to make you choke up.

But I suspect his real gripe is having to live up to it. Though Ripatti may forever be best-known for Vocalcity, his ambient career as Vladislav Delay has produced some of the strongest ambient albums of the last couple decades—not least Entain, released the same year as Vocalcity and made with some of the same instrumental tracks. Critics tend to hear this music and long for the beat of Luomo, but Sasu Ripatti has one of the most enviable catalogs in all of electronic music, and he kicked it off with an album that sounds like nothing else in his discography. The only thing more impressive than that is the album itself.

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