We've all experienced earworms - those phrases or riffs that spiral through your head for an eternity, materializing when you least expect it. On 'Models', Brummie producer Lee Gamble lets these sonic spectres inform a suite of illusory anthems, subliming vulnerable, half-remembered fragments of dream pop, Soundcloud rap and trance in the process. Sung by cybernetic voices in an almost wordless language, his widescreen memories reverberate across the last few decades of pop history, smudging Elizabeth Frazer's surreal poetry into disembodied diva cries and Lil Uzi Vert's abstract, AutoTuned mumbles.
It's a technique that advances the theories behind Gamble's 2012 album 'Diversions 1994-1996', when the producer vaporized interludes and breakdowns from his collection of jungle tapes into ghosted echoes. He surveys and blurs musical history in much the same way here, but swerves sampling completely and isn't in search of passive, ambient euphoria. On 'Models' Gamble instead trains his focus on the synthetic voice, an element that's far more conspicuous. Loose phrases were fed into a series of neural networks which would attempt to mimic them and sing them back, often corrupting them into indecipherable clouds. Gamble's role was to make sense of the chatter and twist these non-words into tight emotional coils. Extracting the most haunted fragments and using them to sculpt dreamy pop simulacrums, Gamble takes the concept of the pop producer to its logical extreme - examining how intonation and language is engineered to monopolize our attention, his uncomfortably addicting, magical realist inversion of pop plays like a bewitching symphony of earworms.
The record's front cover is a dimly lit photograph of a West Midlands motorway, rooting Gamble's effervescent fantasies in lived albeit flimic reality. It's a direct link to the producer's home turf and a conscious attempt to sidestep the visual aesthetics of contemporary digital art.
On 'Purple, Orange' Gamble's process is heralded by a crooning, artificial wail. As unsettling and out-of-body as an episode of déjà vu, it's marked with eldritch wrinkles that pitch it closer to Carnatic scales, stressing that the transhuman voice doesn't come from a single place, but all places at once: no-one and everyone.
Like a premonition of a hyperpop-trip-hop fusion that hasn't happened yet, Models is saccharine and melancholy at once. And just as Tricky perfectly represented the mid-'90s by costuming vintage soul and rap with his visionary outfits, Gamble fits out his sonic mannequins in the drapery of the algorithmic age: DAW-fried vocal artifacts, mannered, hyperreal instrumentation and cavernous digital reverb. The meaning we attach to pop is often our own. Sometimes the words are right there - "so close to me," we can make out through the dust - before they're split into fractal shapes and devolved into gibberish. It's pop music, but it ain't background music.