Has the five-year gap between 2009’s “Ellipse” and “Sparks” dulled the public enthusiasm for Heap? Possibly. But that’s more a problem for the label than it is the fans. What’s more interesting is whether a half a decade space between albums has resulted in a notable departure from the ambient and experimental electronic pop she’s so well-known for.
“Sparks” isn’t a huge departure. It bears a resemblance to “Ellipse” and feels very much like a fine tuning of that album. To its credit though the album engulfs you in its sonic world much quicker than “Ellipse” did. These tracks aren’t immediate in the sense that you immediately feel as if you know them but, they’re soft, gentle and welcoming. You don’t need to work at this record. The occasional belching harsh electronics that provided the up tempo pulse of some of the tracks on “Speak for Yourself” is entirely absent here, the Depeche Mode-esuqe “Run-Time” being the sole exception, making way for a wealth of haunting mid-tempo compositions.
It speaks volumes about Heap’s sense of identity that her use of elaborate loops and layers of vocals seem so natural here. Her voice can truly be said to be an additional instrument in a lot of these tracks, as much a part of the background as they are the lead hook. Mike Patton would be proud.
“Sparks” is very much a mood album. That’s probably the starkest difference between this record and the two that precede it. Both of these albums explore a variety of moods. It is consistently ethereal, gentle and intimate. When the acoustic moments, most of which are piano led, do appear they seem like incredibly delicate elements of Heap’s multi-textured world.
Is that an issue? It might be. This album has no obvious stand out like “Hide and Seek”, nor does it have any of the slow burning intensity of “Half Life”. Those of a cynical disposition could say that “Sparks” is Heap treading water. They might not be wrong.
There are certainly less appealing soundtracks to not drowning though.
“Sparks” is available now in digital and physical formats via Megaphonic/Epic Records