The multi-faceted Russ Davies (aka Abakus and Cinnamon Chasers) is son of Dave Davies and nephew of Ray Davies, co-founders of legendary British popsters The Kinks. This fact has been mentioned so many times in reviews, publicity blurbs and news articles over the years that I wonder if he gets a bit peeved about the constant references to his more famous elders. But I mention it here because it may illuminate at least one thing. Although the mostly instrumental electronica under his Abakus moniker bears no obvious resemblance to The Kinks' jangly power pop, within its DNA I sense the same incredible pop smarts and sophisticated grasp of melody and harmony. Davies has made some of the most intelligently tuneful chillout music on the planet; here are four releases that prove it.
Abakus is still best known for his debut album That Much Closer To The Sun (2004), a chillout classic that splices lush melodic breakbeats, Easy Rider movie samples and tuneful, midtempo progressive house grooves. It's one of the greatest summer albums in ambient dance music, full of warm nostalgic melodies, rippling guitars and luminous synth figures that echo club trance and melodic techno. Davies has captured light in his music, and he's managed to channel it in a vital, dynamic way that elevates it well above a lot of Balearic cafe-style sounds. Less obvious but equally praiseworthy is how the complexity of some of the syncopations and drum programming never makes the music cold or fussy; the album always throbs with a human pulse.
After That Much Closer to the Sun, the chill factor was wound down for nearly decade as Abakus explored tuneful, relentlessly uptempo progressive house on a series of albums that are probably better judged as club music than ambient. Silent Geometry (2013) sees him returning to chillout territory, and in impressive fashion. Some cuts like "Sudden Rush" and "Thought Police" explore the beats and gnarly basslines of then-popular UK breakbeat hybrid dubstep in slow to medium tempos, giving the album a slightly dark edge. Mix that in with all the other dance music elements and you have lots of fascinating hybrids. It remains the most diverse Abakus album to date, though the crystal clear production and heart-tugging harmonies are still unmistakable.
Skip two years to the ep The Beginning/Dreamer (2015) which contains just two tracks and 12 minutes of music but perhaps the most concentrated 12 minutes of brilliance in the entire Abakus catalogue. “The Beginning” rides on a staccato electro buzz intercut with rising arpeggios, the latter element returning each time more euphoric than the last. The ultra-crisp groove of “Dreamer” features a huge, tuneful bassline played off against another trance-like arpeggio of tearful, wide-eyed joy. Equally emotional and intelligent, these tracks are the work of a master craftsman with instinctive musical gifts. Davies not only writes amazing harmonies, he knows how to arrange them for maximum impact, and how to play with tension and release without an ounce of cheesiness or overstatement.
Book-ended by two Daft Punk-like songs and containing nine lush instrumentals, the full-length album Departure (2016) is painted on a blissfully chilled-out canvas. His downtempo distillations of punchy synthpop, underground trance, progressive house and Balearic lounge once again literally sparkle with life and light. “Dreamer” (in a somewhat inferior remixed version) and “The Beginning” provide the album’s euphoric peaks, surrounded by slightly more sedate fare that ebbs and flow on steady, hypnotic breakbeats. “Still A Soul” has harmonies of weeping beauty, while “Storm” shows his knack for harvesting the very best qualities of melodic club trance. Departure is deeply loving music, the very essence of quiet joy, captured in a bottle and cast upon an ocean where the sun shines eternal.