True to its name, which translates roughly from German to mean ‘chamber play’, Kammerspiel is a subtle collection of eleven songs that, to the listener, sound as though Conquering Animal Sound were playing them right there in the same room. The Glasgow-based duo of Anneke Kampman and James Scott imbues their music with such natural warmth that it feels as if these songs were composed and played especially for you, a sense that is strengthened by the intrinsic echoes of the lo-fi recording and various musical shadings. Conquering Animal Sound switch with ease from simple, minimalist songs to those with more layered complexity with twists and ornaments that surprise and intrigue.
Their music may be fragmental in nature (as implied by the album sleeve), but the chemistry between Kampman and Scott is an essential, almost tangible part of the album’s success. Often it sounds as if they’ve created their own language that only the two of them understand, a private communication from which the listener can glean just a few cryptic morsels. Their influences are primarily Nordic, from Iceland’s múm and Björk to Finland’s Paavoharju and their fellow Fonal Records artists, stretching further afield to encompass the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and CocoRosie, whose fascination with children’s toys as musical accomplices is plainly mirrored by Kampman and Scott. But Conquering Animal Sound do more than just try to emulate the artists they admire; with Kammerspiel they have found their very own niche.
The sequencing and structure of the album plays a large part in its success. Kampman and Scott skillfully alternate the songs’ moods and tempos so that the flow of the music feels organic. It’s an agile leap from the tender, introductory ‘Maschine’ with its playful chimes to the inspired post-rock variations of ‘Wasp’ and on to ‘Wildthings’, which indulges in a surprisingly raw and courageous use of synthesisers and (relatively) rough beats coated in a wash of distorted violin. Where others might be tempted to overcrowd the song and obscure its lurking pop sensibilities, Conquering Animal Sound keep it simple and catchy, letting it grow dreamier and tamer as it ebbs into its final minute.
The middle section of Kammerspiel is much more sleepy and soft, and is built around the beautifully textured lead single ‘Bear’. Though the song is blessed with a wonderfully calm and detailed melody, lyrically it takes its inspiration from the Werner Herzog documentary ‘Grizzly Man’ about bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell, naïvely believing that he could live safely among bears, was killed and eaten by the very creatures that he considered friends. “I am a meal for you,” sings Kampman serenely, conveying gruesome violence in a manner very reminiscent of the great Stina Nordenstam – an association underlined further by Kampman’s similarly peculiar voice and expressive intonation.
Kammerspiel’s most staggering tracks, though, are saved until last. Inventive instrumentation (including bowed harp) and a welcome injection of vigour give ‘Tracer’ an edgy, fascinating feel that continues right through to the happy/sad ‘Giant’. By complete contrast, closing number ‘Ira’ (written about a friend’s black Labrador puppy) boasts the album’s simplest, cleanest arrangements. The whole album has a spacious feel, but in curbing their fondness for complexity it’s ‘Ira’ that best documents Conquering Animal Sound’s ear for a good melody. Here, the duo pick it out from satisfying instrumental fragments of plucked harp, guitar and mild percussion, and emphasise its purity with Kampman setting out the album’s most mannered and emotive vocal.
Colourful and varied, Kammerspiel sounds much more mature than is usually expected from a debut. Its highlights may be fairly evenly spread across the album’s forty-minute duration, but the most apt summary characteristic comes right at the beginning as Kampman sings, “You are home.” The surprise is not that this lyric is particularly poetic or special, it’s that, wherever you are listening in, it feels like the truth.
[Gizeh; February 7, 2011]