John Roberts – Paper Frames review

After his Glass Eights long player proved to the world that he was a formidable talent, John Roberts went rather quiet. In the four years he has been releasing music he has never seemed concerned with rushing material out, largely sticking to his chosen homestead of the Dial / Laid family in Hamburg and gently coaxing out distinguished shades of house music that have a compositional classicism rare among modern day producers. While his previous singles had hinted at a musical training beyond MIDI mapping, Glass Eights was proof that Roberts could wield all manner of orchestral devices with grace and poise, and the critical acclaim followed accordingly.

Now Roberts returns with a new single for Dial, and it’s nothing short of revelatory. It’s not strictly unusual for an artist to lend a portion of a single to shorter incidentals alongside dancefloor cuts, although these tend to be somewhat trite noodles rather than essential pieces of music. What Roberts has managed to achieve on this 12”, however, is something akin to the depth and breadth of an album in just four tracks over 13 minutes.

It doesn’t take long to wrap your head around this notion when the first track is “Untitled II”, a short meander through intricate tumbles of gamelan percussion and displaced piano and cello that summon up that romantic Autumnal feeling that seems to typify much of Roberts’ output. Placing it ahead of the longer track on that side, it says much for the importance placed upon this arresting vignette, and there’s no danger of dismissing it as a filler. What is more marvellous is the lack of preparation it gives you for the broken locomotion of “Paper Frames”, which eschews any expectations of the 4/4 framework Roberts has tended to use in the past. A bombastic beat pumps out in a staggered break, while a dizzying battery of found sounds bolster the monolithic drums into a glorious funk. That just leaves it to the incomprehensible layers of fluttering music box melodies to twinkle over the top in a starry eyed reverie as intricate as the sky at night.

The sequencing pattern gets repeated on the flip side as a treated piano pours out a languid soliloquy. It proves to be something of a calming measure after the dramatics of the first act, leading neatly into the tense build-up of “Crushing Shells”. Once the scattered debris of instrumentation has set the tone for another wisened atmosphere, a stout house stomp rips out of the mist, only to be messily spun back every bar. While the groove is a discernible one, this trick of letting the beat collapse so regularly seems like a pointed move to place listening before dancing. Indeed as the rhythm falls away to let the core strings and piano harmonise on their own, you’re left with the feeling that a boozy, shouty club experience would only somehow cheapen music this remarkable. It may seem overblown to talk so loftily about a single, but John Roberts is a producer with a very specific gift that sees his music transcend above that of his peers. It’s probably to his benefit that he exists in among the European house and techno fraternity, although at this trajectory it’s hard to imagine he would stay there for long.

Oli Warwick


Tracklisting:

1. Untitled II
2. Paper Frames
3. Untitled IV
4. Crushing Shells