I wonder what the ratio is between albums, and artists, you found by chance and adore next to the ones you were told were ace. Personally, I’d wager that the ones I stumbled across outweigh the others at a staggering rate. One of these artists is Klein. I came across her music in 2016 when I was hoovering up Howling Owl’s back catalogue. I purchased ‘Only’ as it was a new release, and I was interested by what I’d heard online. I was not expecting to be as blown away as I was. Over the next few years, I snaffled up any, and every, release she either put out or was on. In the intervening years Klein’s releases hold special places in my heart. 2017’s ‘Tommy’ was the soundtrack I used whilst trying to exact a particularly dead-end, dead-end job. 2018’s ‘CC’ I played while walking my daughter around the park to get her to sleep. 2019’s ‘Lifetime’ was used on my morning commute as it was soothing but had a slight edge to it, which I needed in that role. 2020’s ‘Frozen’ helped me get through a particularly isolating period and earlier in 2021 ‘Now That’s What I Call R&B’ was used to soundtrack the celebration of getting a dream job. At that time, I thought Klein had peaked in 2021. “There’s no way she can top this!” I thought. How wrong I was. Seven-months later Klein released ‘Harmattan,’ an album that not only surpasses ‘Now That’s What I Call R&B,’ but pretty much everything else she’s released.
‘Harmattan’ is a rare kind of album. The amount of bravery on display is astonishing. In the past Klein has included avant-garde motifs within her work. ‘ONLY’ leaned into this, but the themes were subtle and relied on the urban soundscapes to do a lot of the heavy lifting. On ‘Tommy’ the album started with a prologue. Not the usual thing a HyperDub release. On ‘Lifetime,’ Klein’s unfairly slept on album, the avant-garde elements really started to make themselves known. It was a challenging, but mesmerising, album that after listens you still didn’t know what it was about but that kept you coming back for more. Years later I think I’m only starting to get it. Maybe.
At times ‘Harmattan’ reminds me of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman while never sounding like them. That level of freedom is there though. Throughout the urban/electronic sounds are still there. They sound awesome. Gritty and powerful, but slightly less pronounced. Instead, they have taken a slight backseat to the glorious pianos and horns. These are the real stars of the album. On ‘Hope Dealers’ an ethereal piano melody is buried under dank drones. Every now and again the fugs part and you get a glimpse of their shimmering beauty below. This combination of sounds isn’t anything new. Wendy Carlos was mixing electronic and classical music in the late 1960s, but here Klein has found her own method. Instead of recreating classical composer’s work with a new piece of kit, Klein has crafted something original and gutsy. ‘The Haunting of Grace’ lives up to its title. Massive slabs of sound swirl around. Sonorous horns hint at something malicious, but nothing really happens, expect for that feeling of unease. It is a master class in tension.
The downside to ‘Harmattan’ is that it has to end. No albums last forever, and nor should they, but ‘Harmattan’ is such a luscious piece of art that I am bereft when it stops. Of course, I can listen to it on loop a few times but that isn’t quite the same, is it? At its peak ‘Harmattan’ offers us a glimpse of something better. Something not formulaic. Klein asks us to engage with the music, rather than passively listen to it. On ‘For Solo/Piano’ the album opens with atonal piano. Then it descends into a few bars of barroom piano. Its jaunty, fun and reminds us that despite its austere sound ‘Harmattan’ is a load of fun. Why can’t all albums be like this?