It seems weirdly inaccurate to describe Caramel, the first album by Glaswegian multimedia artist Tom Scholefield since 2012’s Regional Surrealism, as an ambient record. Not all ambient is beatless of course, and just as importantly not all beatless music is ambient. The truth is that while it certainly lies closer to that end of the spectrum than in does to the brute energy of the rave era it draws heavily from, there is something about it that doesn’t really sit well with such clean and pat categorization.
Part of that is to do with preconceptions, particularly of the sort which bully the thinking into trying to understand something which has no real basis in simplistic, straightened conventions. Much has been already said about the influence of old rave tapes upon the production of Caramel, of the refraction of the day-glo euphoria into the music and the way it has introduced a lighter energy compared to his previous work. While it is certainly true that there is a brightness across most of the productions, I’m not so sure ‘Lightness’ is the word for it. And I’m also not so sure that the influence is limited to the sonic side of things.
Perhaps in keeping with Scholefield’s other life as a visual artist, Caramel is at its strongest when it’s evoking an imagery which is not only based in ideas and memories of packed, sweaty, midnight warehouses, but something more altogether cinematic. The title track, an immense unfolding of rippling colour, is painted with the broad strokes of Vangelis – except instead of a swirling Bladerunner-esque sci-fi world, it draws on other sources, echoing not with the usual machinic imagery favoured by electronica and techno, but something that is more personal and yet communal. It surges with the feel of worship, of people drawn together by common purpose and common interest. Such a religious undercurrent has always seemed strangely fitting for the practice of losing your shit in a darkened room packed with like-minded fools, and that vibe is neatly encapsulated here.
Caramel also rolls that feeling on its head. Cosmic Trigger, for instance, shows similar leanings, but replaces the open vistas with the claustrophobia which is to be found at the point where euphoria crosses the line into nervous intensity. Frozen Border and Manhunter accent this further. Manhunter in particular, with its rationed beats and taut piano, is close to being the darkest thing on the album, and a reminder, if any were needed, that euphoria is not an entirely warm emotion, that is carries within it the possibility of losing control altogether.
But it’s these conflicting emotions which load Caramel’s charge, and lend the record a depth that is usually lost when memories of rave are invoked. The shortened length of many of the tracks work in the albums favour also, providing something like snapshots of a larger life in motion, or as chapters in a travelogue of a journey through states of being. Occasionally it tips over into a space where the abstract nature of some of the pieces seem to cloud the larger meaning and it loses some of the cohesion of the otherwise clear sense of direction, and now and again there is a slight desire to see more things warped and clipped and painfully, playfully, brought to life as on the searing Perc Rave. But more often than not these niggles tend to remind you of just how strong the rest of the record actually is. What’s more, they reinforce perhaps the most important thing about the album: that as far as drawing on the memories of the almost gone rave era goes, Caramel is a truer and more timely record than the masses of breakbeat photocopies currently doing the rounds.