Bristol’s Will Yates makes music inspired by folk rituals and ley lines—music of landscape and weather, of legend and myth. Recording under the aliases Half Nelson, O.G. Jigg, and, mainly, Memotone, he has made records based on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the 19th-century Scottish poet James Hogg; he has written for chamber ensembles and soundtracked a short film about his father’s first fishing rod. It is electronic music, but it runs counter to the genre’s futurist thrust. In the tradition of Boards of Canada, he uses obsolete technology to capture both bucolic calm and elegiac nostalgia, and it’s not always clear where the catgut ends and the circuitry begins. Woodwinds are frequently refracted through eerie digital processing, conjuring the parallel fifths of Jon Hassell’s horn lines. Memotone’s hyperreal medievalism feels suited for post-apocalyptic ceremonies. It’s the kind of thing you imagine the troubadours of Station Eleven getting up to—powering salvaged synths and cassette decks with jury-rigged solar batteries, and capturing fading echoes of 20th-century recorded history (jazz, minimalism, exotica, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) before the last tape can crumble to dust.
On How Was Your Life?, Yates turns his attention to a more recent artifact: a Roland GR 33 guitar synthesizer from the 2000s. The secondhand purchase afforded him a newfound freedom, unlocking a range of tones that mimicked instruments outside his skill set: double bass, fretless bass, even tabla. He fashioned the album out of extended studio improvisations, abandoning his frequently conceptual way of working. In recent years, much of Yates’ music has been heavy on murky, dissonant frequencies, as though he were rooting around for something in a peat bog. But How Was Your Life? is marked by a newfound clarity, buoyed by the silvery tendrils of guitar; it is his lightest and most unburdened record in some time, imbued with an almost Balearic spirit of ease.
The opening “Paradise Drips” lays out the record’s palette. Feedback shrieks like a seagull; digital mallets establish a bright rhythm that drips like the eaves after a summer storm; a guitar melody with heavy glissando invokes the Durutti Column’s liquid fretwork. Structurally, it just sort of drifts, more moodpiece than song: The guitar bobs and weaves over steady, lackadaisical conga slaps, and guitar figures slip sideways and unravel into dissonance. “Open World” is similarly freeform, led by an ersatz stand-up bass solo and pitch-bent flute synths that wander blithely through a glowing field of layered pads. Its movements are pleasantly aimless, vacillating between melody and meandering, happy to linger on the idyllic vistas of Memotone’s uncanny valley.
Yate’s characteristic Hassell-like harmonies occasionally wear out their welcome. They’re so reliably eerie, they feel a little bit like an emotional cheat code, as well as faintly cloying. Fortunately, there are enough ideas in play that any such momentary distaste quickly dissipates. “Forest Zone” rides a loping water-droplet rhythm and understated funk bass. “Carved by the Moon” is a gorgeous soundtrack miniature for strings that reveals remarkably sophisticated chord progressions and voicings. “Canteen Sandwich,” on the other hand, is a kind of bell-tone techno, like Jeff Mills gone gamelan, while the pensive clarinets and pulsing mallets of “Lonehead” evoke Talk Talk covering Steve Reich.
What’s most convincing about How Was Your Life? is neither the technological tricks nor the record-collector references, but rather its understated emotional register. The precise mood is as impossible to pin down as a spring breeze, but it is by turn gently euphoric, whimsical, and bittersweet. The album’s title suggests a deathbed glance back, and, given Yates’ ecological interests and the perilous state of the planet, perhaps that’s just what it is: a fond sunset appraisal of a beautiful place out in the country, before the skies darken one last time.