You could never accuse Kate Simko of lacking ambition. Most artists would be content to serve as one of our most adroit producers of thoughtful house and techno, the kind that's full of both musicality and dance-floor efficiency. But the classically-trained Chicago native, now based in London, has always aspired for more, and has always reached for something higher. Among other highfalutin endeavors, she's composed the feature-length film score for the PBS documentary, The Atom Smashers; she's remixed the likes of Philip Glass; she did sound design for a 2011 production of The School for Scandal; and in recent years, she's completed a Masters in Composition for Screen at the Royal College of Music. It was there that she got the germ of the idea for London Electronic Orchestra, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like—the group currently consists of Simko on electronics and keyboards, Essi Kiiski and Kamila Bydlowska on violin, Zoe Saubat and Deni Teo on cello, Valeria Kurbatova on harp and Nina Harries on bass.
Combining the ideas, instrumentation and/or compositional practices of classical and electronic music is a risky venture; the results can be rewarding (Jeff Mills's work with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra, for instance) or pretty inane (Clean Bandit’s “Mozart’s House” regretfully springs to mind). Happily, the debut LP from Simko and LEO, released by The Vinyl Factory, avoids the hackneyed side of that equation—the album isn't a hastily tossed-together pastiche, but instead is coherently layered and largely absorbing. It steers clear of the kind of mindless bombast that this kind of crossover could potentially generate, largely thanks to Simko's skillful songwriting and arrangements. And it also sounds great— the vibe is both crystalline and inviting, possibly due in some part to the fact that the album was mixed by Phillip Glass's main engineer, Dan Bora.
The album kicks off with the one of the album's most amiable cuts, "Shikoku," its swooning, violin-led melody driven by rhythmic cello and bass, setting the pace for what follows. “Champa,” a reworked version of Simko's 2015 remix of the Parra for Cuva track, is another gem, with the strings—at times placid, at others forceful, at yet others buoyantly pizzicato—providing a luxurious base for its airy, cooing vocal. An instrumental version of "Dark Delirium," her collaboration with Katy B and Jamie Jones, layers its uplifting strings and harp glissandi over a housed-up kick, bass and piano; the pastoral, placid “XX Intro,” as its name succinctly implies, is a cover of the xx’s “Intro”—and a pretty faithful one at that, albeit one that’s several times more lavish than the original.
It’s all gorgeous, but at times all the underlying splendor runs the risk of becoming overwhelming. There’s almost too much of a good thing, like a second serving of a exquisitely rich meal—it sure is tasty, but you may regret it when the calories makes make their way to your waistline. Simko seems aware of that risk, and she holds back often enough to avoid a potential case of beauty overload—which is not to say any of these cuts run the risk of being accused of minimalism. Previously released on the Emerald City label, the dreamy “One Time Game,” produced with Jones, is another of the album's housier tracks, with shimmering keys, 909 thump and those ever-soaring strings serving as the foundation to Jem Cook’s aching vocals. “Cairo,” meanwhile, weaves Kurbatova’s harp improvisations around an Middle Eastern motif, a plucked double bass providing the heft while its sweeping arrangement brings the tension; the album’s coda, “Violin Duet No. 1” strips the proceedings down to the bare essentials, with a somber bassline supplying a low-frequency to its plaintive pair of entwined fiddles.
The album won’t be for everyone—even its clubbiest cuts are instrumentally and melodically extravagant, perhaps too much so for people who prefer more down-to-earth sounds or more streamlined arrangements. But for those who don’t mind a little bit of grandeur and a whole lot of musicianship, Simko and her cohorts have put together a warm, welcoming and sumptuous collection of tunes.
Kate Simko & London Electronic Orchestra LP is out May 6. Pre-order it at Juno.
3. Waiting Games
4. Dark Delirium
8. One Time Game
9. XX Intro
11. Violin Duet No 1