Felix Garner Davis
Perth-based vocalist and producer Laura Jane Lowther dropped Unconditional, her second EP as KUČKA, on Friday. It’s good — just the concise and consistent stroke she needed to place a cherry atop a busy few years of momentum-building. Seven tracks deep, Unconditional is a delicate and ghostly expanse of avant-space-pop, an assured project full of interesting textures and sounds from one of our most promising electronic exports.
The project begins abruptly — a ticking drumroll ushers in ‘Divinity’, one of Unconditional’s lead singles. An arpeggiated synthesiser spills droplets over rolling bass lines and distant, low-pitched vocal samples, crisp percussion grating throughout. KUČKA’s vocals are multi-layered, lending them an artificial, inhuman feel that complements the instrumentation. The lyrics, too, are quite captivating. A line that stands out to me in particular is ‘syncopated timezones’ — while the idea is abstract, there’s something for the lyrical analyst to grasp and contemplate here, not to mention the aesthetic word choice.
Another moment I like is part of the chorus and forms the critical idea of the song — ‘I feel divine / I can feel my selves divide’. The lyrics on 'Divinity' suggest a state of benign confusion, quiet self-analysis and existential musing, a balance that is reflected by the instrumental's mix of twinkling melodies and ominous bass. Of course, there’s the idea of musical fame conferring a kind of pop-culture divinity upon an artist. Moreover, there are the disparate ‘selves’ of Laura Jane Lowther and KUČKA to consider, along with the live incarnation of the project, which includes Jake Steele of Injured Ninja and Katie Campbell of Catlips. As ‘Divinity’ begins to slow and descends into a trap groove it’s clear that it has been well placed in its opening slot, providing a window into where KUČKA feels she stands at the moment and also, perhaps, where this record could take her.
‘Divinity’ dissolves into ‘Generation XYZ’, a sparse jam consisting almost entirely of a loop of hazy snare drums. The instrumentation reminds me of a Massive Attack number from 2010’s Heligoland, but KUČKA’s vocal intonations sound closer to a traditional R&B realm. Again, KUČKA’s mixture of darkness with uplifting melodies, occurring this time when the vocals blend with the instrumental, makes for alluring listening. The pairing works because her voice provides another dimension to the gloom of the soundscape, a balance I wouldn’t say exists in Heligoland because of the subdued vocal delivery throughout. Occasional squirts of pads and a heavy 808-style kick lend ‘Generation XYZ’ further character and fullness — it’s an enjoyable listen.
Next up is ‘Flux 98’, glued together by a groovy bass line and glittering bells. Laid over the top of the instrumentation at times is a found sample of birds tweeting, an example of KUČKA’s affinity for musique concrète. ‘Flux 98’ finds KUČKA stripping the layers away from her vocals at points, which makes for a welcome contrast — Laura has a great natural voice and one of Unconditional’s strengths is the range she displays in experimenting with it. The purring lows and reverb-heavy kick in this one are really solid, too.
...it's simultaneously dark, ominous, airy and light, layered with creative textures and peppered with vocals processed to a post-human, artificial extreme...
The eponymous and first single, ‘Unconditional’, emerges next. A pulsing, sharp bass flows in waves over slow percussion and airy, oozing pads. Again, ‘Unconditional’ presents us with vocals largely stripped of effects, which work well. The rolling bass and sprinkles of electric piano in the percussion-free breakdowns when KUČKA croons ‘I don’t wanna say goodnight too soon’ are the strongest moments on this one.
‘Honey’, the fifth song on Unconditional, is one of my favourites. The side-chained synths lend it a lovely movement, and the low-key percussion gives it a sense of ambient space. The bassy, lo-fi kick is a cool component, and the licks of piano throughout feel appropriately distant and murky. The lyrics hint at a narrative of unrequited love and its physical manifestations — ‘instantly lose my breath’ — and while the chorus is slightly difficult to make out, KUČKA plays with the word ‘honey’ in a memorable way (‘huh-neh!').
As the final two tracks on Unconditional loom, the project starts to take on a more experimental feel. ‘Hold On’ features a bevy of found sounds, from mechanical clanks to what could either be bursts of warm vinyl static or a crackling fire. It’s sparse and spacious, featuring erratic bursts of pads, and KUČKA samples her own voice throughout, pitching vocal cuts in an engaging way. A menacing bass throbs beneath everything. At one point in the middle she slowly strangles her voice with what sounds like a vocoder, a very effective digression from the rest of the song and a continuation of Unconditional’s theme of distortion. As 'Hold On' weaves on, the vocal samples finish with an exclamation — ‘Let it go!’ — which interestingly contradicts the song’s title. Perhaps this is another instance of KUČKA’s multiple selves in conflict?
‘Recovery’, the closer, is the EP’s most turbulent track. Scattered percussive elements swirl with a brooding bass and snatches of vocals that sound like a spiritual chant, and stabs of muted synthesisers roll around the stereo field. The mesmerising soundscape whirls on, invaded at times by another wobbling bass, then, abruptly, after a final sequence of chants, soft chords and a crackle of vinyl, it’s over. This sudden conclusion works well, I think, as it's quite jarring and parallels the swift beginning of the record.
It’s a triumphant finish for a compelling project, one that is simultaneously dark, ominous, airy and light, layered with creative textures and peppered with vocals processed to a post-human, artificial extreme that complements KUČKA’s futuristic brand of R&B. In many ways, Unconditional is a synthesiser enthusiast’s dream — KUČKA creates haunting bass lines, celestial melodies and everything in between, all of which meld with her arsenal of found sounds and samples to generate an EP that is worthy of a handful of repeat listens.