London’s Barbarossa (James Mathé) does something special on its debut album, Bloodlines. Somehow, the one-man project proves largely difficult to place in a certain genre. Generally electronic, Mathé’s sound ranges from self-reflective, peaceful pop to a kind of new-age folk to a perplexing yet satisfying R&B.
Part of Mathé’s style is explained by his previous work in José González’s band Junip. Simple and thoughtful, many of the tracks on Bloodlines are reminiscent of the Argentine-Swedish artist’s. However, Mathé has replaced González’s acoustic guitar with an ethereal organ and keyboard.
Barbarossa is curiously evocative of many different artists. At times, James Blake is a clear influence. It’s tough to hear “Butterfly Plague” and not think of “The Wilhelm Scream” for at least a moment — the drums are especially helpful in creating this connection. The similarities are there, but not overwhelmingly so. Blake’s experienced sound feels more contenting at first, but Mathé’s offers up such a range that it’s hard to really criticize Barbarossa.
While Mathé’s voice often sounds very similar to pop rocker Ben Folds’, the overall tone of Bloodlines is unexpectedly similar to that of Frank Ocean. Though an odd comparison, many of the two artists’ tracks share undeniable likenesses. The first song “Bloodline” starts with organ chords almost identical to those at the beginning of Ocean’s “Forrest Gump.” Barbarossa’s “S.I.H.F.F.Y.” and Ocean’s “Bad Religion” also share highly comparable sounds, due largely to the organ. Barbarossa is lyrically less interesting and much more subdued than Ocean, but there are commonalities present and that can only be perceived as a compliment to Mathé.
For the most part, Bloodlines provides an entrancingly diverse mix of sound. “Battles” and “Saviour Self,” though, are two tracks that too closely resemble lullabies. Serenity can only go so far before it reaches a point where boredom ensues.
In “The Load,” one of the strongest tracks on the album, Mathé sings, “I will not ever take this for granted.” Possibly, Mathé is quite aware of just how promising Bloodlines appears to sound. Despite some slow, largely dull tracks, Barbarossa has created quite a noteworthy first record.
— Tess Boyle
Bloodlines is available now. Check out a video for “The Load” below.
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