For James Chapman – the fizzing brain behind the music – Vicissitude owes its very existence to the period of personal reflection and rearrangement that took him out of the game after the release of 2009’s Turning The Mind; a three-year phase between albums that’s clearly pushed Chapman onwards to create by far his finest work to date.
That foot-off-the-gas period has lent a direct, pragmatic approach to Vicissitude that’s evident right from the record’s opening bars. From the point where A.M.A.’s simple electronic click-thump drum track stretches itself out into a cascading, glacial chorus, a one-eye-on-the-door lyrical couplet (“So I thank you kindly for all you’ve done / Counting down the seconds till I am gone”) through to the floatation tank tranquillity of the final song Adjusted to the Darkness, there’s a definitive sentiment that recurs throughout the album: I’m ok now, I’m moving on.
“The whole album is about change;” says Chapman. “It’s about dealing with a struggle – whatever that may be – and ultimately coming through it.”
While Turning The Mind swung like a hedonistic after-party held after Maps’ debut We Can Create’s Mercury Prize nomination, Vicissitude has the distinct feeling of digging deep and confronting reality head on. And in each of those cases, with Chapman the sole creative force behind the music, any Maps album is defined entirely by where his head was at during the recording process.
“Writing and recording coincided with quite a lot of things in my life changing. Although things are good for me now, every song on the record comes from a long period of me having to take stock, to start again almost. I took myself out of everything and had a hard look at what I wanted to do and where I wanted to take Maps.”
In Chapman’s case, getting out and taking stock meant retreating back to his home in Northamptonshire, the place where We Can Create was recorded in its entirety on 16 track – and holing up with a pile of his favourite records. Then, rather than starting out with an exploration of the studio set up at his fingertips, he began writing on an acoustic guitar in his home studio.
Chapman explains how the album was made:
“For a while I was just experimenting and fiddling about with sounds but there came a point early on where I wanted to just get back to my roots; to try to create something that felt like the records I’d grown up loving. That’s how I started out – writing songs on acoustic guitars – and that’s essentially how this record came together. This time round, it was only after the song was fully formed that I’d allow myself to spend two weeks dicking around to get the right hi-hat sounds!”
Vicissitude was recorded and produced in its entirety at home in my small studio space. Using mostly hardware sequencers and drum machines and recording into a hard disk 24-track recorder, the songs are the result of quite an old-skool way of working. I preferred to work that way because sometimes the limitations led to more creative, interesting results.”
The songs were then polished by producer & mix engineer Ken Thomas (Sugarcubes, M83, Sigur Ros) who had previously helped to finesse We Can Create. .
“I took everything to Ken’s studio in a country house in Farnham. He and his son Jolyon (also a programmer/producer, S.C.U.M, Telepathe) both worked on my first album. They were able to add a bigger, more expansive sound to the songs by mixing in Pro Tools. We also added live percussion, and I had the luxury of being able to explore their collection of analogue synths, such as the Korg MS-20. Jolyon tightened up a lot of the drum programming which he’s brilliant at.”
In the end though - as with all Maps records – the sound of Vicissitude is all down to James Chapman. Every note and every word, every beat and every filtered, synthesized sound is his; the album’s overarching mood and the sense of hope that underpins it are his too.
“I think that the recording methods I use are a huge part of where the Maps sound comes from. And this record is definitely the closest representation of what I’ve got down at home. Vicissitude was definitely the hardest Maps record to make and ultimately the most fulfilling too; because of the self-applied pressure it’s definitely the one I’m most happy with. A lot of the record is about dealing with your past and moving on, facing a brave new world. If it seems like there’s a melancholy feel to some of the songs, I really hope that there’s a feeling of optimism in there too. It’s less like the album has a full on hands-in-the-air feel and a bit more like it’s emerging blinking into the sunshine.”
It’s a combination you hear throughout the album’s ten tracks, from the loose-limbed gait of Left Behind – a track that gloriously echoes the blissed euphoria of the early ’90s bands that influenced Chapman’s teenage years - to the spiralling claustrophobia shot right through the title track; from the redemptive mantra at the heart of You Will Find A Way (“When all this ends, we start again”) to the warped ambience that elasticates out the middle of Insignificant Others, a track that feels like it’s been recorded in zero-gravity.
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