In recent years Maribou State’s steady ascent has seen them become a household name within electronic music, without ever really moving ahead of the pack. Finding themselves occupying a space somewhere between ambient electronic and a more house-nodding, four on the floor sensibility, a string of EPs and remixes to date have failed to demonstrate anything particularly remarkable, whilst forever maintaining a sense of intrigue that makes this debut full-length seem more long-awaited than it maybe is.
Having released on Norman Cook’s Southern Fried imprint over recent years and having maintained such a presence on the DJ circuit, Portraits feels like a record that takes a quite deliberate step away from the hedonism of the dance floor. That’s not to say that there’s been any drastic abandonment on Maribou State’s part, but it’s a record that refines the more tranquil elements of their earlier production whilst calling on heaps of live instrumentation to form the foundations of one of the most organic sounding electronic records for some time. It feels incredibly at home coming out in association with Ninja Tune, too.
Opener ‘Home’ hones in on this very natural feel from the offset – it sounds like a hidden cove at dusk – and if that’s where Maribou State want to call home then they’ll surely be many who would love to make it their own. With its scattered percussion, vocal samples thrown from different directions and breaks in rhythm, it ties together a lot of the most pleasing elements of this record. ‘The Clown’ with its radio-ready pulse is decidedly less rewarding and feels like somewhat of a lull on Portraits by comparison – it’s easy to envisage the watered down euphoria its full-bodied piano prods could generate in a festival tent somewhere, but on the whole it fails to captivate after more than a couple of listens.
Whilst Portraits may not be a particularly bold statement, it’s certainly a foundation for that exploration to build from.
Outside of ‘The Clown’ and the first of two tracks to feature Holly Walker’s vocal, ‘Steal’, which passes without making a real impression. Portraits works with elements and structures that are for the most part fundamentally interesting, without a single track or section making a bold, standalone gesture of its own. It’s perhaps what will lead to some forgetting about this debut, but it’s within there that its beauty really lies – the syncopation within ‘Rituals’, the near-tribal, processed percussion buried within ‘Say More’. ‘Wallflower’, which with its shuffling opening feels little more than an unmemorable interstitial track at first, but shifts in to anxious swells and soaring orchestral strings to find numerous forms within itself, yet it forever feels wholly in control and in keeping with the refined atmosphere of the record.
There’s nothing strikingly original about Portraits, but the execution of their craft means that the pair can sit confidently alongside the likes of Bonobo, Mount Kimbie, even The xx, from who they’ve borrowed on this debut. But it’s never been a problem of fitting in for Maribou State, it’s a case of how they move to a higher level. What is striking about the record is that it feels as if it has just been made to be played live, and it’s within that arena that the potential now lies for them to go on and perhaps become genre-defining artists. When you think of the expansive live show of their Ninja Tune affiliate Simon Green, there’s a blueprint for the potential of Maribou State. As closing track ‘Varkala’ abruptly ends, feeling almost unfinished, it gives the sense that there’s another chapter to be explored. Whilst Portraits may not be a particularly bold statement, it’s certainly a foundation for that exploration to build from, one that encapsulates an organic side of electronic music and carries with it moments of genuine beauty.