Coby Sey fully transcends everything we expected - and that was already a lot - on his shapeshifting debut album; a multi-layered fractalisation of Tricky-level trip-hop, blitzed electronics, post Grime, surrealist poetry and filthy basement techno. We're ruined by this one - one of the most gripping and satisfying braindumps we've heard this year.
Trip-hop's been teasing a fully-fledged revival for years now, with steps made from artists like Space Afrika, Dis Fig and Dawuna who each juxtapose smoked-out '90s aesthetics with a contemporary, druggy malaise. Coby Sey has been skating around these landscapes for years at this point, collaborating with similarly-poised friends like Curl cohorts Tirzah, Dean Blunt, Lol K and Mica Levi and developing an artistic vision slowly, purposefully. That's probably why ‘Conduit' sounds so fully developed - it's rare that a debut album arrives with this level of complex layering, and that's what makes it so special.
'Marking the past', Sey repeats in the opening seconds of 'Etym'. For him, the album is a way to continue a musical lineage - and he does it without repetition: 'Conduit' doesn't sound like a trip-hop album exactly, but it feels like a spiritual and aesthetic successor to Tricky's underrated '96 masterpiece "Pre-Millennium Tension". When that album was released, it was a grotesque and asphyxiating representation of a confusing era, as neoliberalism snuffed out activism and the world hurtled towards economic collapse. And in the face of that year's defining pop music - The Spice Girls' "Spice" and Oasis's "(What's The Story) Morning Glory?" - it was a cracked mirror held up to the UK's New Labour-approved proto-TERF lad/ette cultural visage.
'Conduit' arrives at an even more perilous time in British history, and channels the island's suffocating mood of isolation, depression and future shock. Like Tricky before him, Sey weaves these emotions through a noodle-blitzing tapestry of contemporary aesthetic markers: dissonant synths, razed power electronics and despondent, surrealist poetics. These sounds plug into a continuum that's confident of its past, aware of its impact on the present, and unsure how new developments might help shape what's yet to come. In that respect, it feels almost hopeful.
'Permeated Secrets' filters a boom-bap bassline underneath Sey's chilling vocals: "I don't care if you like my work," he states after a dense verse that ties lethargy into political disenfranchisement. Sedate rhythms interrupt the flow, as sci-fi dub glimmers add a sheen to the mix. When trip-hop died a death in the late 1990s, it had been defanged by supposed social progress and reformed into polite, elevator music to accompany luxury car advertisements. The anger and self-assured expression of music from artists as vital as Tricky and Leila had been absorbed into a tech-powered cultural blob that saw no difference between Moby and Massive Attack.
By contrast, Sey spikes his music with elements that make it hard to misinterpret. 'Night Ride' sounds as if it emerges from nowhere, a grizzled industrial slugger that chops wordless vocal utterances into soupy basement tech booms. 'Response' features contributions from horn players Ben Vince and CJ Calderwood and guitarist Biu Rainey, pulls Space Echo jazz loops into a spiralling void of rhythmic, cinematic strings and medieval recorder trills before loping into its wordy final act.
By the time we hit the finale, 'Eve (Anwummerɛ)' is a much-needed breather, allowing us to reflect and absorb as Sey loops reverberating electric piano beneath field recordings and snatched, choral fragments. It's the perfect end to an album we're likely to be unraveling for the rest of the year - Coby Sey's given us an artistic statement that's robust, illusory, literary, complex, occasionally absurd and ultimately massively rewarding. If trip-hop's gonna continue to evolve from this point, it might need a new name.